Vayigash: The First Baal HaBayis

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayigash, we learn of the great reunion between Yosef, his brothers, and his father, after a twenty-two year separation.  When the brothers return to Egypt to procure food for a second time, due to the severe famine ravaging the land of Canaan, they present themselves before the viceroy (who is, of course, and unbeknownst to them, Yosef their brother).  At this point, Yosef can no longer contain himself, and to the utter astonishment of his brothers, he declares, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” (Bereishis 45:3).

After reconciliation, and assuring his brothers that he bears no ill-will towards them, for certainly it was G-d Who sent him before them to Egypt, to be a provider of life, he urges his brothers to hurry to father and tell him that his son Yosef yet lives, and that he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.  And so, what seems to be great triumph in Yaakov’s descent to Egypt to reunite with his long lost son, is actually the beginning of the bitter Egyptian exile.  

With his father and brothers and families in Egypt, Yosef will be able to continue to rule over the land, and provide for all of its citizens, while simultaneously taking care of his family.  The pasuk tells us: וַיּוֹשֵׁב יוֹסֵף, אֶתאָבִיו וְאֶתאֶחָיו, וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזָּה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּמֵיטַב הָאָרֶץ בְּאֶרֶץ רַעְמְסֵס כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּה פַרְעֹה, and Yosef settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them a holding in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ramses, as Pharaoh had commanded (47:11).  Rashi notes that Ramses was in the land of Goshen, where the family of Yaakov settled. 

וַיְכַלְכֵּל יוֹסֵף אֶתאָבִיו וְאֶתאֶחָיו, וְאֵת כָּלבֵּית אָבִיולֶחֶם, לְפִי הַטָּףand Yosef sustained his father and his brothers and his father’s entire household with bread, according to the (needs of) the young children and the entire household (47:12 with Rashi).  

Here we have Yosef the righteous, the man of integrity, the identifiable Hebrew (see 39:14,17, 40:15, 41:12), the one who clung tenaciously to the ideals, morals and norms of the house of Avraham, in the role of Yosef the businessman, the provider, the sustainer of life, the ruler and king.  I often think of Yosef as the COO (Chief Operating Officer), CEO (Chief Executive Officer), and CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of ancient Pharaonic Egypt.  Yet, despite all of this, he never allowed power and money to corrupt his faithful and pure ways, nor his devotion to G-d.  

Rav Soloveitchik teaches, “Torah knowledge originated on Mount Sinai, and it was passed down from one generation to the next.  The quintessence of Jewish history is based on the connection between teacher and student – the continuity of the Torah, the mesorah.  This mesorah requires both the rav and the talmid; by their efforts, the Torah survives eternally.

“There is another mesorah of great significance: the mesorah of Jewish balebatim, the laypeople.  This mesorah is not one of concepts, but rather of methods and images.  It is a continuity of a type of personality.  The first baal habayis was Yosef.  In Egypt, he provided support for his father and his brothers.  Our survival in galus, in exile, is due not only to the struggle of the Jewish scholar, but also to the efforts of the Jewish baal habayis.

“There are three characteristics that balebatim possess which make them unique.  First, the baal habayis feels a clear awareness of his responsibility not only for himself, but for the entire Jewish community.  Second, the baal habayis has a pragmatic mind; he has an aptitude for decision-making and decision-executing.  Finally, the baal habayis is a visionary; he is a dreamer, he looks to the stars.  From whom were these traits (which sustain us through our millennia of exile) inherited?  From the first Jewish baal habayis, Yosef.

“How did the Torah portray Yosef?  His first dream involved bundles of wheat; he was an individual with a prosaic, practical vision.  There was another dream, however: of stars in the heavens.  Both dreams were found in Yosef’s personality.  He was pragmatic (represented by the sheaves of wheat), but he also looked to the stars.  He was a visionary, imagining the limitless goals that he could achieve in aiding his nation (and sustaining his family)” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Bereishis, p.345-347).  

Throughout our millennia of exile and wanderings, our nation has survived through the traditions, laws, ways and study of Torah, as passed down from rebbi to talmid in each and every generation.  This is the responsibility of each and every Jew, to ensure that once he is no longer of this world, his students and descendants will continue the transmission of the chain of Torah to the next generation… and so on and so forth.  

And yet, there is another mesorah, another tradition, that also ensures our survival as a nation through the ages.  This is the mesorah of the Jewish home, the businessman, the layperson, the Jew who goes out into the world, yet remains steadfast to the laws and ideals of Judaism in all that he does and everywhere he goes.  Even as he is involved with the world around him – his own ‘sheaves of wheat’ – his eyes reach upwards – towards his own ‘heavenly bodies’ – always striving to be both a man of the field and a servant of G-d.  

As did Yosef throughout his leadership in Egypt, the Jewish baal habayis, the layperson, takes responsibility for others, thinks practically and realistically in regard to what must be done, and finally, always remains a visionary, knowing that Torah and kemach are not mutually exclusive, but can be successfully meshed together in his personality and his life.  

The Yid ha’Kadosh (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa, 1766-1813) was known to say: “Is it a novelty to be a person who creates miracles?  Any simple person can do wonders and create miracles.  It is indeed a novelty to be a good Jew.  It is not easy to be a good Jew” (Tales of the Righteous, by Simcha Raz, p.210).

Yosef’s enduring legacy is the model of a stellar Jew who combines pragmatics with a never-ceasing vision of grandeur.  It is based on his example that every Jewish layperson must form, shape and live his life.  May we be wise and courageous to emulate the path that he forged.  

,בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום


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