Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayigash (Genesis44:18-47:27)
imagine the days before photos, fingerprints, and other ways to positively identify someone. If someone came to town claiming he was Person X, how could he prove it? Imagine a man marrying a woman and vanishing a week after the marriage and then showing up many years later. The wife says, this is not her husband, but he presents a strong argument that he is—how would you resolve it? This actually happened in Lithuania about 250 years ago and we will discover the ingenious solution and how it relates to some excitement in this week’s Parsha. One of the great dramas in all of Jewish literature comes to its climax this week when we read about Joseph, who was presumed dead for twenty-two years. He finally reveals himself to his brothers, who had sold him as a slave after almost killing him. They now discovered that not only was he alive, but also an Egyptian Viceroy, second in command in the most powerful country in the region. They immediately sent the good news to their father (Jacob), but how did he know it wasn’t a contrived hoax to make him feel better? In order to alleviate the skepticism, Joseph decided to send his own message; wagons filled with delicacies. Here’s the question: how did these wagons prove that it truly was Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was still alive?
According to the Midrash, the wagons were a sign hinting to the last Jewish topic Jacob had taught Joseph before they had been separated. (The topic had to do with a word with the same root as wagon). The only two people who could decipher the wagon hint were Joseph and Jacob—and this leads us back to our story.In the mid-18th century, a strange incident occurred in Vilna. A young couple had gotten married and shortly thereafter the husband vanished without a trace. No one knew his whereabouts or even if he was alive or dead—therefore, his poor wife was still officially married to him and unable to remarry.
Many years later, the man returned. He said he regretted what he had done and asked his wife to take him back. She claimed that this man was an imposter. Although he had similar physical characteristics to the man she had married, and even though many years had passed, she was sure this was not her husband. She asked him a number of personal questions, which only her husband could have answered, and he answered correctly, yet she still was not convinced. He even knew intimate details about their marriage; matters that only the two of them could have known. It was decided to seek the counsel of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), acknowledged throughout the Jewish world as the greatest genius and repository of Jewish knowledge at that time. The Vilna Gaon heard the story and told the man to go to the shul and to point to his seat. The man tried to stall, but he could not do it. Then he broke down and admitted that he had learned all his information from the husband, whom he had befriended many years earlier.
The Vilna Gaon explained why he had specially asked that question. He had assumed this man was an impostor seeking to move in on another man’s wife. Such a person would seek to know the pertinent details to prove his identity, but it would not occur to him to find out about the husband’s seat in shul or any of the other holy matters in Jewish life.Similarly, Jacob knew that if the man who claimed to be Joseph was an impostor, he might have extracted personal and private information from the real Joseph. However, he knew that it would never occur to an impostor to ask which Jewish topic he and Jacob had been discussing before they had been separated. When Joseph was able to refer to that topic, Jacob was convinced that he had found his long-lost son.
Serious Jews identify themselves by the Jewish aspects of their lives. The important information is not the make and model of their car, the size of their house, or the last time they watched the Super Bowl together. There’s nothing wrong with those things but someone serious about being Jewish will have a Jewishly anchored reference point. What shul do you go to? Are you involved in any of the community’s chessed (kindness) activities? What the last Jewish event or class you attended?
If you had to identify yourself, what would be your Jewish reference point?