VaYigash: Was It All A Foregone Conclusion?

Joseph recognized by his brothers, by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers
Joseph recognized by his brothers, by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers

Vayigash is one of the great portions of Torah. The central scene is the revelation by Joseph to his brothers. It is a moment of Torah that is filled with drama, pathos and the reality that, no matter how hard we may try, we can never fully run from our own family of origin. As Joseph reveals his identity, he reveals his true self.

Lurking within the verses of this portion is an interesting concept expressed openly by Joseph right after he reveals himself. In Genesis 45, his brothers must have stood in shock; after all, they assumed that they had rid themselves of Joseph years before. Now Joseph stands before them, holding their future in his powerful hands. Will he extract revenge? Rather, he says that this is all part of greater plan. “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves that you sold me, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (45:5). Joseph reminds his brothers that, in essence, this was all part of a grand plan, that the invisible hand of God was in charge in order that the grand plan for the Hebrews could be fulfilled. Can we, in the midst of life’s chaos, intuit some grand purpose?

As we age, we often reflect back on what was. Can we divine some grand plan? Was our life just a collection of random events? Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan speaks to this is a brief meditation prayer when he writes: “Enable us, God, to behold meaning in the chaos of life about us and purpose in the chaos of life within us.”* That is an interesting, challenging and engaging statement. Are we able to see some meaning and purpose in the events of our life? If we are, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, creatures in search of meaning, how do we find a sense of meaning and purpose in the often chaotic events of life around us and our own inner life? Do we turn to our tradition for guidance? Or do we go to a default setting of “that’s life”? 

The events of this passage raise this age-old challenge, a challenge and question that is ever present. Does my life matter? What has been and is the meaning and purpose of my existence? Is there a plan, or are these years just a collection of random acts and responses? And if there is some master plan and purpose for us, who or what determines that?

This brings to mind the challenge to us by Vicktor Frankl in his Man’s Search for Meaning when he reminded us that the question of “what is the meaning of my life” is the wrong question. Rather we need to ask, “How can I live my life so it has meaning? That response, for many of us, is frightening because it shows us that we have the responsibility to choose that meaning.

Joseph, in this Torah portion, chose to affirm his true identity and in doing so, set the stage for the next chapter of Biblical history. Was it his choice, or was the invisible hand of God orchestrating these events for some higher purpose? 

As we reflect on our own spiritual journeys we can hope that we’re able to discern the fact that the choices we have made have brought a sense of a higher purpose to each of us. As we get older, we come to understand that our life span is but a mere blink of an eye when measured against the span of the universe.

Can we look back and see the paths that led to the purpose for our life? Let us hope that we will be able to look forward and see more opportunities to live a life of meaning. Like Joseph, we go into our future strengthened by the power and possibilities and blessing of life.

* “A Year With Mordecai Kaplan” Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. p.38

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