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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash

Tevet 7, 5780 – January 4, 2020

Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayigash, which means “and he approached.” This is in reference to the approach Judah makes to the Viceroy of Egypt to intercede on behalf of his brother Benjamin. If you remember from last week, at the end of Parashat Mikeitz, Joseph had planted his silver goblet on Benjamin to falsely apprehend him. This parashah begins with a truly beautiful and visceral response from Judah, pleading for the release of his brother, even going so far as to offer himself up as a slave. In this instinctual approach, the Midrash tells us that “Judah penetrated Joseph’s innermost depths,”[1] which prompts Joseph to finally identify himself to his brothers. “I am Joseph,” he exclaims. “Is my father still alive?” (45:3) The brothers were in shock, awe, and were “left disconcerted before [Joseph],” but Joseph comforts them and reassures his brothers that their selling him was part of God’s plan. After reconciling quite quickly, and mitigating the shame and remorse of his brothers, Joseph – once again – supplies everyone with gifts and various provisions to rush up to Canaan and deliver the news to Jacob. To prove to Jacob that they were telling the truth, Joseph had directed his brothers to relay the last Torah lesson that they had studied together (egalah arufah – Deut. 21:1-9), which was something that only Joseph would know.[2] Recognizing full well that a difficult exile lay ahead[3] – for himself and for many future generations – Jacob begins the journey to see Joseph in Egypt with his sons and their families (seventy souls in total).[4] En route, G-d spoke to Jacob in night visions, saying: “Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up.” (46:4) Jacob then arrives in Egypt, Joseph and Jacob have an emotional reunion, and Joseph ensures that his family can settle in a place separate from the influence of Egyptian society. This place is Goshen – a fertile land in the northeast of the country – where Jacob and all his descendants can tend to their flocks and their cattle, which was a way of life detested by the Egyptians.[5] Jacob and Pharaoh meet, Jacob blesses Pharaoh, and the remainder of the parashah details how Joseph politically navigates the additional years of the famine, and uses his economic power and agrarian policies to acquire wealth for Pharaoh.

Last week, I spoke about the concept of tshuva (repentance), and how this is an element of life associated with one’s tikkun. Tshuva is a process of return and reconciliation whereby one atones for previous mistakes and heals past transgressions. But it’s a lot more than just saying sorry; it’s actually a process whereby someone mends a wrongdoing by feeling true remorse, acknowledging the other person’s point of view, and correcting the misdeed through prayer, humility, and actions that evoke transformation. In Parashat Mikeitz, we saw how this (tshuva) was a process that Joseph was engineering for his brothers. But in the beginning of this parashah, we see Joseph’s plan come to fruition as Judah pleads for the life of his brother, Benjamin, and this is ultimately what coaxes the truth out of Joseph. It is a moment of passion and sincerity that shatters an illusion, and reveals the identity that Joseph had been hiding from his family. The most important take away, for me, as I read this passage, was to always speak the truth, to stick to your gut and what you feel is right, and to not be afraid to speak your mind. Commentators to this parashah tell us that “buried in Joseph’s heart was a plan to conceal his identity until the appropriate moment when he would tell them that he was their brother – but Judah tied together narrative, appeal, and argument until he drew the secret from Joseph.”[6]

I think we can all learn from Judah’s approach within this narrative, and use it as a lesson for how we approach our own environmental activism. On a surface level, there really wasn’t anything rational about Judah’s appeal. For all he knew, Joseph was an unsympathetic, cruel, and power-hungry man who had his youngest brother falsely imprisoned. But if you read between the lines, Judah is enacting the energy of tshuva, which is what ultimately helps him to discover Joseph’s fallacy, and object to a wrongdoing. Put another way, some level of illusion is inherent in many environmental problems, especially for certain issues – such as climate change – which is a difficult concept to grasp if the effects are not immediately recognizable. In Dale Jamieson’s book, Reason in a Dark Time, he states: “We face physiological obstacles in responding to climate change. Evolution built us to respond to rapid movements of middle-sized objects, not to the slow buildup of insensible gases in the atmosphere. Most of us respond dramatically to what we sense, not to what we think. As a result, even those of us who are concerned about climate change find it difficult to feel its urgency and to act decisively.”[7] This is what causes so much debate amongst the public, and can even compound within the scientific community, because relying on computer models to predict the complexity of natural phenomena is never a sure bet. Mostly, various forms of propaganda, political rhetoric, or even a flood of information is what often detracts from the issue and muddies the water of our decision making. This can make it difficult to understand how to act, or how to change. But there are certain precautionary principles, and environmental management strategies, that can guide us through challenges that are insensible because of scale and complexity. There are even forms of logic that can help us to develop the foresight to operate in the shadow of an illusion.

In Talmudical hermeneutics, there is a principle known as kal vachomer [a fortiori][8] which relates a simple deduction to a more complex argument, or vice versa, according to the nature of the argument. This was a strategy that Judah used to advocate for his brother Benjamin when he was accused of stealing the silver goblet, and it is a principle that we can take seriously regarding climate mitigation. And here is a simple example: if it has been established by the IPCC[9] that increase in global temperatures by a margin of 1.5°C will disrupt the negative feedback loops of the earth’s ecosystems, then surely 2°C will do the same. Surely 3°C, 4°C, and 5°C would also be problematic, if 1.5°C is an indication of human-induced climate change. We shouldn’t need to be convinced to act at 3°C, if 1.5°C is the point when the deleterious effects of climate change are grave enough to jeopardize climate security. This is just one example of how the principle of kal vachomer can be used to guide environmental activism amidst disparate forms of confusion. Dale Jamison also writes: “Climate change has the structure of the world’s largest collective action problem. Each of us acting on our own desires contributes to outcomes that we neither desire nor intend.”[10] This is what eventually got the brothers into trouble, and is what forced Joseph to operate under a charade until he could arrange for the security of his family. But, even more importantly, in the context of climate change – and in the context of Judah’s rebuke to the Viceroy of Egypt – tshuva is what shatters the illusion. Tshuva is what lays the groundwork for just action and nullifies all pretense. Judah could give an impassioned rebuke to Joseph because his passion was backed by a pure intention, rational thinking, by the principle of kal vachomer, and if he didn’t act he knew it would prove costly for the brothers. For those of us who wish to develop the ability of act on our environmental convictions, we can take a page out of Judah’s book and witness the transformative power of tshuva.

Tshuva is an essential aspect of life; it is never a practice that ever really ends. As a fundamental matter of environmental thinking, to ensure long-term sustainability and security for the entire planet, moderation of our habits is also a practice that is continuous. In this way, tshuva and sustainability are both moral issues, that requires a strong personal – and collective – ethical commitment. For me personally, one of the most captivating and endearing aspects of this parashah is that the family unit is brought back together. There is so much power and promise when the individual can align with the collective, and this is an ideal for the family unit to aim for. Families are small communities, and it was vital that Jacob, all his sons, and their respective families, came together to prepare the Jewish people for the coming trial of exile. We too, within our own family units, and within our local communities, must band together to change social norms regarding our treatment of the earth and consumption habits. Innovation within the family unit, and within the local level, is what will bring real change to technologies, business practices, and institutions on the global level.

I’m going to leave you all with a thought – something to ponder. It’s regarding the years of the famine towards the end of the parashah, and the actions that Joseph took to accumulate wealth for Pharaoh. Commentators note that “Joseph’s master plan was to impoverish the Egyptians and make them totally dependent upon the king.”[11] In addition, after Joseph acquired all the land, and people had traded in their livestock for bread, the Torah tells us that “as for the nation [that being the people of Egypt], he [Joseph] resettled it by cities, from one end of Egypt’s borders to the other.” (47:21) I’d like you all to think about the relationship between food security and personal power, and how an alteration in this dynamic is reflected by habitation in a geographical location. Just something to think about! Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and catch you next week.

Topics Include: Kal vachomer and climate action, using tshuva to discern the truth, and the relationship between food security and personal power

Works Cited

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.250

[2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.256-7

[3] “R’Shlomo Ashtruc writes that without doubt Jacob was aware of the prophecy that Abraham’s descendants would be aliens and slaves in a strange land, and he was fearful that the literal exile and servitude would begin with him.” (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.257)

[4] Sixty-six people left Canaan to journey to Egypt, including Jacob. Joseph and his two sons, plus Yocheved (who was born on the way, and who was to become the mother of Moses), make seventy descendants in total.

[5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.262-3

[6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.250

[7] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, p.4

[8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.247 – When the brothers came to Egypt the first time, they found – in their sacks, on their return to Canaan – the money that they used to pay for the grain. When they returned to Egypt the second time, they brought the money back with them to return. So, the argument was: why would they steal the goblet? This is the principle of kal vachomer, which takes a simple argument, and relates it to a more complex scenario.


[10] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, p.4

[11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.265

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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