Parshat Vayechi

FRIDAY, December 29th

After the death of Yaakov, Yosef’s brothers, fearing that perhaps Yosef had only been kind to them for their father’s sake, send word to their powerful brother asking him to have mercy on them.  In their message to Yosef they refer to themselves as “the servants of the God of your father (עבדי א-לקי אביך),” defining themselves in religious terms as people who serve God. However, immediately afterwards they go to Yosef and say “behold, we are your slaves (הִנֶּ֥נּֽוּ לְךָ֖ לַעֲבָדִֽים),” using the same Hebrew word for servant or slave in both cases.

Which is it?  Are they servants of God or are they servants of Yosef?  Yosef responds to his brothers by asking rhetorically “Am I in place of God?” While this would appear on the surface to be a disavowal of the right to judge, this phrasing perhaps contains a subtle rebuke of his brothers for promising to be his slaves when their loyalty rightly belongs to God.

I would like to suggest that the brothers’ declaration that they will serve Yosef as slaves is no mere foreshadowing.  Even if this declaration didn’t by itself make the brothers into slaves, it showed not only Yosef but also Egypt that they were willing to live as slaves, thus paving the way for the oppression to come. The enslavement in Egypt was at least in part both a natural consequence and a fitting punishment for our ancestors’ willingness to substitute a human master (their brother Yosef) for God.  By offering themselves as slaves to Yosef in the hopes that he would protect them, the brothers were buying security at the price of their freedom, substituting subjugation to human rulers for the service of God.

Throughout our lives we have moments when we can choose to serve God or to serve human masters.  Those human masters could be political leaders, our employers, or simply people whose good opinion we crave.  When we make our well-being and happiness dependent on mortal human beings and the institutions they build, we are, like Yosef’s brothers, condemning ourselves to servitude.  However, when we place our trust in God, we can emancipate ourselves and become truly free.

Rabbi Garth Silbertein