Vayigash: Who Recognizes Yosef?

In Parashat Vayigash the drama and tension between Yosef and his brothers reaches its climax. And then Yosef blows everything wide open, revealing himself to his startled brothers: “I am Yosef”. Afterwards, the brothers rush off to their father to break the news: “Ode Yosef Chai”, Yosef is still alive.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the parasha’s dealing with Yosef, we must pay attention to the fact that what lies at the center of this three parasha drama between Yosef and his brothers is the fact that on one side stands Yosef who knows that his brothers stand before him, while on the other side are the brothers who do not know that they stand before Yosef. This is summed up in the verse in Parashat Mikez: “And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”

What is Meant by “Recognize”

According to the simple understanding, the commentators explain that the brothers did not recognize Yosef because at the time they sold him, he was young and without a beard, and now he had a beard. On the other hand, Yosef recognized his brothers because at the time he was sold, they already had beards.

Rashi digs deeper, explaining that the difference between the two sides was not merely recognition of external appearances. When Yosef encountered his brothers on the fateful day in Shchem, they did not “recognize” him; that is, they did not act brotherly towards him and sold him to the Ishmaelites. But when the brothers were at Yosef’s mercy, he “recognized” them; he acted brotherly towards them and did not take revenge for all the pain that they caused him.

In these days, after Yosef’s tomb has been sold to the Ishmaelites, we must focus on this point, and to shed light on the present situation where Yosef once again is not recognized.

Mashiach Ben Yosef and His Role

In the Torah, when speaking of the redemption, Mashiach ben Yosef and the concept of “Od Yosef Chai,” play a central role. According to tradition, before Mashiach ben David’s arrival, Mashiach ben Yosef will fight God’s wars in the age of redemption preceding Mashiach ben David. The Atchalta DeGeula, the stage before the conclusion of redemption when all surviving nations accept Heaven’s yoke, is the period of Mashiach ben Yosef. The Gra (the Gaon R. Eliayahu of Vilna), in his work Kol HaTor, calls Mashiach ben Yosef the “Mashiach De’Atchalta”, the “Inaugural Messiah”. The Gra explains that Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef live and endure in every single generation, functioning in their role…” Mashiach ben Yosef is involved in the whole physical side of the redemption, the actual return to Zion, and the fighting of God’s wars, while the role of Mashiach ben David is to complete the spiritual redemption. If the Jews do not merit the redemption in a particular generation, the roles of the Messiahs are passed down to someone else in the next generation.

Estranged From and Conspired Against

We will now return to the central verse we mentioned, bringing the words of the Gra in Kol Ha Tor. ” ‘Yosef recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him’. This is one of Yosef’s attributes. Not just in his generation, but in every generation, Mashiach ben Yosef recognizes his brothers and they do not recognize him. It is an act of Satan which conceals Mashiach ben Yosef’s attributes, such that the Jews unfortunately do not recognize his footsteps, and in fact scoff at them…If not for this, our troubles would already be over. If Israel ‘recognized Yosef’, Mashiach ben Yosef’s footsteps comprising the ingathering of the exiles, etc., we would already be completely redeemed”. (Ch.2, Part 1:39)

Is it even necessary to expound upon our alienation from “Yosef” today? And now the Gra comes and teaches us that it is this very estrangement, ridicule and opposition to Mashiach ben Yosef and his role – the role of reviving the land, ingathering of the exiles, the conquest of the land and the war against the “erev rav” – this is the reason why the complete redemption is being delayed!

Not only is there estrangement from Yosef, but a conspiring against him, as it is written on Yosef: “And they conspired against him to slay him”. Yosef’s brothers see Yosef and his dreams as a threat to them. “What?! You are going to lead the process of redemption? You, the youngest amongst us?” They decide that he constitutes a danger and must be killed. Ode Yosef Chai! Who more than we can testify to the estrangement and mistreatment of those who attempt to bring the complete redemption. Yet, just as Rashi explains that Yosef “recognized” his brothers, behaving brotherly towards them; so, too, does Mashiach ben Yosef and his followers, those who carry on the task of bringing the redemption to the Jewish People – so, too, are they willing to endure personal suffering for Israel’s salvation, all out of a burning Ahavat Yisrael. The Gra teaches us that only against a few, the erev rav, must we fight a war to the bitter end. (“The erev rav is our greatest enemy…Hence, the war against the erev rav is the hardest and most bitter, and we must gird ourselves with our last strength towards this end. Whoever does not actively take part in the war against the erev rav automatically becomes a partner to its impurity, and whoever he is, he is better off not having been born.. (Ch.2, part 2:2)

But the masses that still do not recognize Yosef, attaching little or no importance to his activities (partly due to the erev rav and its propaganda) – we must “recognize” them. In the words of the Ohr HaChaiim, (who, by the way, was alluded to by the Gra as a spark of Mashiach ben Yosef), on our verse: “He looked at them as one looks at brothers, and he behaved brotherly towards them”!

These days are critical ones. The war that broke out this past Rosh Hashana centered on Shchem and Kever Yosef during the first few days. Afterwards, Yosef’s tomb was abandoned and sold to the Ishamaelites like discarded baggage. Our answer must be the opposite: We must cling on to all those tasks of Mashiach ben Yosef – the conquering of the land and the war against the goyim and the erev rav. We needn’t worry about being popular or palatable in the eyes of those who are not willing to recognize Yosef. By so doing, those who are willing to recognize Yosef will see and understand that “Ode Yosef Chai”.

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