Vayiggash to him, Judah did, and he said: “Pardon me, my lord. Let your servant speak, please, speak in your ears, my lord, and don’t be angry with your servant, since you are like Pharaoh.” (Genesis/Bereishit 44:18)
vayiggash (וַיִּגַּשׁ) = and he came near, and he approached, and he stepped forward. (A form of the verb nigash, נִגַּשׁ = came near, stepped up.)
Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt. He does not know this all-powerful man is his younger brother Joseph, whom he and his brothers sold as a slave 22 years before. After Judah’s painfully polite introduction at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, comes a cascade of revelations: Judah’s empathy, Joseph’s identity, and the true extent of Joseph’s narcissism.
The trouble started with Jacob. He had four wives but loved only one, Rachel. After Rachel died in childbirth he had twelve sons but loved only Rachel’s two children, Joseph and little Benjamin.
At age seventeen, Joseph had become a tattletale and a narcissist —someone with a psychological condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others. (See my posts Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy and Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)
When Joseph came to report on them again, his ten older brothers stripped him and threw him in an empty cistern. Then they talked about killing him and telling their father wild animals did it. Judah convinced the others to sell him as a slave instead, to a caravan bound for Egypt.
Joseph heard everything from the bottom of the pit.
At age 38, Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt, with absolute power over stockpiled grain during a severe famine. When his older brothers come from Canaan to buy grain he recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. The Torah says he sets up a “test” for them. Joseph imprisons one of the brothers, Shimon, and promises to release him only when the others return with their youngest brother. (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)
The opening of this week’s Torah portion is the culmination of the test. When the family in Canaan runs out of food in the second year of famine, Jacob finally lets his older sons return to Egypt with Benjamin. Joseph releases Shimon, shows favoritism toward Benjamin, and sells them more grain. Then he arranges a trap: he has his steward hide a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, then follow them, “discover” the goblet, and let them know that the punishment for stealing it is slavery. Will the ten older brothers head north and leave Benjamin behind as a slave?
They do not. They return to Joseph’s palace and say they will all be the viceroy’s slaves. When Joseph refuses this offer, Judah steps forward (vayiggash) and gives an eloquent and unselfish speech about how their father’s life depends on Benjamin. He concludes:
“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with us? Let me not see the evil that would meet my father!” (Genesis 44:33-34)
Judah has changed in the last twenty years;1 he is no longer callous or selfish, and he has empathy for his father. Has Joseph also changed?
Joseph was not able to pull himself together before all those attending him, and he called out: “Clear out every man around me!” So not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)
Twice before Joseph was overcome and left the room to weep: once when his older brothers expressed guilt for their lack of compassion for Joseph in the pit2, and once when he saw his little brother Benjamin, all grown up.3 At the sight of Benjamin, the Torah says, Joseph’s rachamim (רַחֲמִים), his compassion or loving emotion, is kindled. It is the first unambiguous empathy Joseph exhibits. (See last week’s post, Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)
Now Joseph cries in front of all his brothers.
And Joseph said to his brothers: “Geshu, please, to me.” Vayiggashu. And he said: “I am Joseph, your brother who you sold to Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4)
geshu (גְּשׁוּ) = Approach! Come closer! (Another form of the verb nigash.)
vayiggashu (ו־יִּגָּשׁוּ) = and they approached, and they stepped forward. (Also a form of the verb nigash.)
Joseph asks his brothers to come closer, and they do—physically. But can they come closer emotionally? Joseph’s next words are:
“And now, don’t find fault and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life. Because this pair of years the famine has been in the midst of the land, and for another five years there will be no plowing nor harvest. But God sent me before you to set up food for you in the land and to keep you alive as a large group of survivors.” (Genesis 45:5-7)
In Joseph’s explanation, his older brothers bear no guilt—and have no agency. They are not responsible for their crime, because God made them do it. Their deeds have no importance; they were only God’s means for bringing Joseph to Egypt, where he would become a hero.
So now, you did not send me here, but God! And He has set me up as a father-figure to Pharaoh, and as the master of all his household, and as the one who dominates all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:8)
Joseph’s moment of compassion and affection for Benjamin did not transform him. His statement that God manipulated his brothers like pawns in order to make him the ruler of everything and the savior of his family is an undisguised expression of narcissism.
After delivering this statement and requesting that his brothers bring Jacob and the rest of the extended family to Egypt so Joseph can take care of them, he wants to exchange tears and embraces with his brothers. It is an opportunity for them to express gratitude toward their savior.
The first embrace is successful.
And he fell on the neck of his brother Benjamin and he wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. (Genesis 45:14)
Benjamin has no bad memories or guilt regarding his brother Joseph. The ten older brothers do the best they can, but the Torah does not say they wept, or kissed him, or embraced him.
And he kissed all his brothers and he wept on them. And after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)
Joseph may feel some affection for Benjamin. For all we know, he also feels affection for his own Egyptian wife and sons. But he exhibits more narcissism than empathy.
During the seven-year famine, his brothers have no alternative but to obey Joseph and bring Jacob and their own wives and children and grandchildren down to Egypt.
And Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them holdings in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land … And Joseph sustained his father, his brothers, and all the household of his father with bread, down to the mouths of the little ones. (Genesis 47:12)
With his extended family members, Joseph acts like a benign God. As long as they are completely dependent on him, he is generous and happy.
With the Egyptian farmers, Joseph enjoys a different aspect of his importance and power. Sometime after the second year of famine they run out of silver to pay for the grain that Joseph collected and stored during the seven years of plenty.
And Joseph said: “Bring your livestock, and I will give to you in exchange for your livestock, if there is no more silver.” (Genesis 47:16)
Soon the Pharaoh owns all the livestock in Egypt (except for the animals belonging to Joseph’s family and to the Egyptian priests). The following year the Egyptian farmers tell Joseph that they have nothing left to trade for grain except themselves and their fields. Joseph calls it a deal.
And Joseph acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since each Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was so hard on them. And the land became Pharaoh’s. And he made the people cross, town by town, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other end. (Genesis 47:20-21)
Joseph not only takes each farming family’s title to its land, but moves the family away from home to farm in another part of the country.
And Joseph said to the people: “Hey! I have acquired you today, and your land, for Pharaoh. There is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And it will happen at every harvest, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh …” And they said: “You have kept us alive. May we find favor in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:23-25)
Joseph’s motivation is not greed; he arranges for the Pharaoh to own everything. His purpose is to display his power. Joseph, and Joseph alone, can rearrange the government and population of all Egypt.
One does not need to be a narcissist to lack empathy for members of a particular population. Even today, many people who are unselfish, sympathetic, and caring members of their own community also speak and vote callously when it comes to foreigners and outsiders. It is easier to blame the stranger than to love the stranger.
Joseph is a narcissist with his extended family as well as with the Egyptians; the only affection he exhibits in the Torah is for his younger brother Benjamin. Sometimes he is cold and calculating, and other times he is a drama queen. His narcissism makes him untrustworthy; even after his older brothers have lived for seventeen years living under his protection in Egypt, as soon as their father dies they are afraid Joseph will take revenge on them.4
You cannot really come close to a narcissist. But you can approach your own soul, and ask yourself for whom you feel no empathy.
- Genesis 38:1-26.
- Genesis 42:21.
- Genesis 43:30-31.
- Genesis 50:15-20. Fortunately for the brothers, Joseph still believes God arranged everything so Joseph would be the hero.