“The Dreams and the Divine Covenant”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. After twenty-two years of separation, Jacob and his entire family travel from Canaan to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, who has risen from the position of a lowly Hebrew slave to the exalted status of Viceroy of all of Egypt.

As Jacob’s entire family bows down before Joseph, all of Joseph’s dreams finally come true. But not only do Joseph’s dreams come to fruition, the prophesies and predictions of the Covenant between the Pieces (Genesis 15:9) have also begun to be realized.

In the Covenant between the Pieces, G-d tells Abraham to take three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young pigeon. He instructs Abraham to cut all the animals in half, and place each piece opposite the other, but to leave the birds whole.

It is in this vision that G-d informs Abraham (Genesis 15:13), יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי-גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם, אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them, for four hundred years. G-d also conveys to Abraham that He, G-d, will judge the nation whom they serve, and afterward, the people will leave with great wealth.

As Jacob and his family resettle in Goshen, the prophecy of exile predicted in the Covenant accelerates further. While the decree of enslavement and persecution had yet to begin, the prediction of exile in a land that is not theirs has become a reality.

The house of Jacob is also about to experience a veritable eclipse of G-d’s Presence. The “field” in the land of Canaan in which the family of Jacob previously labored, where they were depicted in Joseph’s dreams piling up sheaves, has vanished and been replaced with a new land, with borders on the Nile River. Along with their departure from their homeland comes an abrupt and profound diminution of control and power. So rapidly has their stature declined that in their new land they must go before Pharaoh’s representative in Egypt, hat in hand, bent over and bowed, to beg for an allotment of food to eat.

Despite this humiliation, they are fortunate that during the early stages of exile in Egypt they are not subject to enslavement or persecution by a fierce and cruel ruler, as their children will be in later years. As Joseph’s dreams had predicted, all they now need to do is to humble themselves and bow down to the exalted “chief” of Egypt, to Joseph himself.

It is not the Al-mighty’s practice to exact payment from the righteous against their will. And yet, the brothers of Joseph must pay for their villainous actions. Had the brothers responded to Joseph’s threats by overpowering him, there would have been no power on earth that could have enslaved Jacob and his family. But now that they freely and willingly give themselves as slaves to Joseph, they must wait until G-d remembers them, takes them out of Egypt, along with the bones of Joseph. After all, it was Judah who volunteered by saying, Genesis 44:33 “And now, please let your servant [Judah] remain as a slave instead of the boy, and serve as a servant to my lord.” Once Judah, the leader of his brothers, was enslaved, all the others were drawn into servitude, and the period of enslavement begins for all, just as G-d had predicted in the Covenant. After the death of their father Jacob (Genesis 50:18), the brothers further confirm their willingness to serve as slaves.

Now, even the elderly Jacob, who had endured such bitterness, and who harbored the hope that he would, at last, in his later years experience relief from his travails, because of the prediction of the Covenant, he was not to enjoy tranquility and peace. Instead, he suffered for twenty-two years, pining for his “deceased” son, Joseph. Only in the land of Egypt, where he goes willingly, and not in the land of Canaan, does Jacob enjoy a respite.

There, in Egypt, Joseph’s dream that “the sun, the moon and the eleven stars” bow down to him has come true. The sun [Jacob] submits before Joseph, which, ironically, provides true relief to Jacob, because the Covenant between the Pieces demanded that he and his family be exiled. At least, in this manner, Jacob was fortunate to go down to Egypt of his own free will, rather than as a slave, shackled in ball and chains.

It could very well be that Joseph had hoped to fulfill the inevitable Divine decree of עִנּוּי–persecution–himself in a milder manner, by estranging himself, and posing as a cruel tyrant before his brothers. “I will bring them down to Egypt,” thought Joseph, “and effectuate the persecution upon them with my own hands, rather than have them suffer at the hands of others.” But, as we know, Genesis 45:1,  וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק Joseph could no longer hold himself in, could no longer act harshly toward his brothers.

Once Joseph revealed himself to his family, he could not bring them down to Egypt in anger. Instead, Joseph drew his family down with “ropes of love and forgiveness,” acting swiftly, not even giving the family members time to realize what was happening. Joseph insisted that his brothers (Genesis 45:9) “Hurry, and go up to my father!” Before he knew it, the elderly Jacob, spared much harsher pain, was carried down to Egypt, with his entire family.

Reality had set in. Joseph’s dreams and G-d’s Covenant with Abraham were in the process of fulfillment. Joseph, the second most powerful person in Egypt, had himself become a servant to Pharaoh, resulting in Jacob’s entire family becoming slaves and servants as well. The second element predicted in the Covenant, slavery, or at least part of it, had clearly begun, and persecution was not very far behind.

The bulk, and the most severe experiences of servitude and persecution, however, remained for the next generation of Jacob’s children and grandchildren to endure. 110 very hard and long years of labor and persecution lie ahead, as the dreams of Joseph and the Covenant of G-d, are fulfilled.

May you be blessed.