The paradox of VaYigash is that the Joseph who tearfully reconciles with his family in the beginning is the same man, the iron-fisted administrator, who enslaves most of the Egyptian population in the end. There is almost a law of conservation of compassion at play. In verse 47:23, we read, “Joseph spoke to the people, ‘Indeed, I have acquired you and your land today for Pharaoh; take this seed and sow the land.’” In Joseph’s defense, his stern conduct, first towards his family and then towards the Egyptian population, is high-minded and in their ultimate interest. Yet he seems unperturbed by the panic of people who are under his control. His approach is paternalistic in the extreme. Joseph decides what is necessary for everyone around him, and Joseph tries to banish emotion.
The word “vayitapeik” (he restrained himself) is, I think, the key to understanding Joseph. He survives many traumas and trials by controlling his emotions and actions, and he quickly learns to use the anxieties of others, including his brothers and even Pharaoh, to gain leverage and control over them. Even when he sees Benjamin and is overcome with emotion (43:31) Joseph restrains himself (vayitapeik). But there is a psychic cost to all of this self-control. Eventually he is no longer able to keep his emotions in check. In 45:1 we read, “Joseph was not able to restrain himself.” Rashi says that Joseph was not able to suffer (lisbol) that the Egyptians would overhear his brother’s shame; in other words, he was still in control of his own emotions. But it doesn’t look that way to me, nor to many of our sages, starting with Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who understands that Joseph finally broke down. Other commentators agree that he was unable to suffer not to weep (lisbol shelo livkot). Radak, following earlier Midrashim, has Joseph overcome with emotions as he thinks about his father (which accords with his statement, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?”). Ramban has the most interesting take—it was his Egyptian advisors who were overcome with mercy toward Benjamin upon hearing Judah’s speech. The surge in their mercy is what ultimately overwhelmed Joseph and prevented him for continuing to restrain himself. Joseph had previously sealed his emotional world off from the emotions of others; finally, he is unable to maintain the barricade, and at least temporarily allows his emotions to prevail. But he quickly modulates his mood and returns to his controlling personality, training his brothers how to manipulate Pharaoh, and then extending his domination over the entire population. Continue reading