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O Brother Where Art Thou?

The confrontation between Joseph and Judah in Parashat Vayigash (Gen.44:18-47:27) is characterized by Chazal (Jewish Sages) as a meeting between two kings. When it seemed that Joseph might arrest their youngest brother Benjamin, Judah appealed to Joseph in a manner that revealed his profound growth as a leader motivated by fearless concern for his family. That concern is fueled by a simple truth that both brothers recognized—that the Creator orchestrated the fateful events that brought them all together. It also marks a new beginning for the family of Israel who exhibited a renewed sense of unity. The brothers, especially Judah, displayed a new level of responsibility in their readiness to defend their innocent, youngest brother Benjamin. It is then, that Judah and his siblings wholly accept that they are, indeed, their brother’s keeper.

After Jacob learns that Joseph is alive and prime minister of Egypt, God speaks to him, bemar'ot halaylah (in night visions), telling Jacob to redu (go down) to Egypt. The gematria of redu is 210, alluding to the 210 years of exile that will begin with the family going into Egypt. But the darkness is mitigated by God’s promise that Israel will be forged into a great nation.

Joseph describes his new status as vizier or prime minister in this way: “G-d has made me a father to Pharaoh.” This odd designation actually agrees with the ancient Egyptian traditions. According to Egyptologist A. S. Yahuda, the vizier was also called Itif —which means “father.”

The reunion of Joseph and his brothers is echoed in Ezekiel 37:15-28—this week’s companion Haftorah. It's a promise that the Jewish People will genuinely recognize and value each other and wholeheartedly embrace their messianic role. Jewish unity is the path to redemption. This is made abundantly clear in the Haftorah wherein HaShem says of the united family of Israel: “I will make a covenant of friendship with them—it shall be an everlasting covenant with them—I will establish them and multiply them, and I will place My Sanctuary among them forever.”

The Historical Joseph

Can we find evidence in the Egyptian annals or in the archaeological record that attests to the existence of Joseph? Yes, he may well have been prime minster for the 3rd Dynasty pharaoh called Djozer, aka Netjerikhet who ruled from the capitol near the Nile Delta for a duration of twenty to thirty-eight years. According to an inscription found near the village of Sehel, on the lower reaches of the Nile, pharaoh Djoser dreamed of a seven-year famine and consulted his prime minister, Imhotep regarding the dream. Imhotep is known to this day as the designer of the Step Pyramid at Saqqaraa. He is also renowned as a skilled sage who mastered both architecture and medicine. Imhotep was unique in another respect: he was not royalty but a commoner.

Meanwhile in the Southern capital called Elephantine, the 5th Dynasty pharaoh known as Djekare Isesi ruled for thirty-nine years and is credited with creating a feudal system of farming, wherein landowners sold their property to the crown but continued to work the fields, sharing part of their produce with the king. This echoes the Torah’s account of Joseph purchasing all the land of Egypt and developing an ancient feudal system of farming where the people gave one-fifth of their crops to the king(see Genesis 47:20-24).

It was during the time of this same ruler that circumcision was introduced. The procedure is commemorated in a relief found in a tomb complex dated to the reign of Djedkare Isesi. In Midrash Rabbah Miketz we learn that Joseph decreed that he would only distribute grain to those Egyptians who circumcised themselves.

Finally, the reader will recall that the pharaoh called Djozer ruled from the Nile Delta for a total of thirty-eight years and the king known as Djedkare Isesi ruled thirty-nine years. The combined reign of these two pharaohs is seventy-seven—just three years shy of the eighty years that Joseph served as prime minister of Egypt.

Whatever the reality of this epic drama, it remains a profound lesson about the need for unity in a world bent on tearing families apart. Now, more than ever, the Jewish People recognize and value of each other. And our support of Israel, at this moment in history, is a measure of our belief in God's ultimate plan that will use profound struggles to form goodness and greatness in all of us.

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