Vayigash by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Weekly Dvar Torah Vayigash

A smooth, gleaming-white Egyptian moon had risen over the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids. Joseph, Vice-Pharaoh, Agriculture Minister, and Royal Officer Plenipotentiary, sat in the office of his home: it was cool and dim in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. From the ceiling hung a brass oil-lamp, which swung gently in the evening breeze. Opposite him sat Snefru, Minister of Protocol to His Royal Majesty, Seti I. They sipped at spiced wine in tall clay beakers, cooled by December snow which swift riders had brought back from the hills of Uru-Salim, a minor Jebusite mountain city in the Hebrew’s home country of Canaan, to the north.

Wine loosens the tongue, as they say, and both Joseph and Snefru had reached that pleasant state of semi-inebriation where all the world’s a fine and lovely place, and a man feels he can bare his heart and soul to a comrade. And so did the two think of one another: Snefru was Sudanese, a refugee brought to Egypt by parents fleeing the civil wars of their homeland. As for Joseph, all the nobility of Egypt knew his story: the poor, enslaved Hebrew teenager who had been brought to Egypt by Ishmaelites—or were they Midianites? It was no matter. He had first served Potiphar as servant and then chief-of-household, until an unfortunate encounter with Zuleika, Lady Potiphar, had landed him in prison. Clearly, he had been to blame—or was it she?

Egypt did not care; its royal subjects, virtually enslaved to their semi-divine Pharaoh, were used to scandals in high places, but they never complained—they dared not complain, for to do so would mean either a lifetime spent in the prison-pit, or bleeding out one’s life and strength in a Royal Trireme, chained to a bench and brought to the lash.

So was life under Seti I: a bluff, former military man, who wished only for his orders to be carried out, no matter how arbitrary or foolish they might sound. To cross Pharaoh Seti meant certain death.

With his native wits about him, Joseph was quick to recognize the nature of the monarch he served, who held the power of life and death in his hands, as closely he held his royal scepter and flail. The Hebrew, longing for his father and family, willing even to forgive the brothers who had treated him so badly, wished only for a friend in whom to confide—and had found that friend in Snefru, whose being Sudanese, Joseph believed, made him an outsider, as well.

The hours went on, measured by the water-clock which stood in a corner of Joseph’s office; he directed his serving-boy to bring another jug of wine, and he and Snefru drank each other’s health, yet again. The Sudanese, whose dark eyes seemed to glow in the moonlight like a leopard’s, was telling his Hebrew friend about his parents’ dangerous trek from the killing fields of Sudan to the safety of Imperial Egypt:

“After we escaped the prison camp where the Ethiopian invaders had imprisoned us,” Snefru was saying, his words slightly slurred by too much spiced wine, “my parents would find or make us a hiding-place by day. We would travel at night, the moon and stars lighting our way.”

“It must have been extremely dangerous, Friend Snefru,” said Joseph, thinking of his own journey down to Egypt, the sun burning hot, his flesh, bare now with his Coat of Many Colors torn off and dipped into lamb’s blood, hands tied with a rough leather thong, riding a camel with head uncovered and the hamseen blowing sand into his face, which he was unable to protect—he had to cling to the beast with all his might.

“Ah, Joseph, my Hebrew friend and fellow Royal Officer, you have no idea!” expostulated Snefru, taking yet another sip of the delicious wine. “My baby sister was captured by the Ethiopian guards when we escaped—she panicked and would not heed my father’s warnings to, ‘Run to the East! Run as fast as you can!’ And, after he scooped me up and raced into the thicket, Mother there before us, I could hear her screams as the Ethiopians pierced her in a hundred places with their short spears—I will hear her screams until I die, I believe—”

And he took another, deep draught of wine. “And what of you, Friend Joseph? As a Hebrew, you are certainly suspect to your enemies in the King’s Court—how do you protect yourself?”

Joseph grimaced. He put down his wine-beaker; he preferred a clear head, at least partially. “Briefly, I make myself indispensable to His Majesty by taking on more and more responsibilities: crops, cattle, slaves, and the like. That way, if I lose face and he decides to do away with me,”—and Joseph tellingly drew his forefinger across his neck—“he will think twice. Where will the great Seti, Ra bless him!—find another officer who can perform all the tasks which I willingly undertake?”

“Ah, Joseph, you are a clever one!” smiled Snefru, “and I cannot hope to equal a man of your talents. I have that I can do, to handle the constant and continual embassies of foreign secretaries from other lands. We Egyptians, as you know—and, with your permission I include you in that designation—are notoriously suspicious of foreigners.”

“I am aware,” said Joseph solemnly, “that, in our language, ‘stranger’ also means ‘barbarian.’ We Egyptians are the pinnacle of civilization, and I mean, by my efforts, to keep that position for our kingdom. However—”

Snefru leaned forward, eager to hear what his clever Hebrew friend had to say. Joseph continued:

“To insure our supreme rank among the nations, I must gather around me a cabal—no, a committee, if you will—to guarantee that, when Seti dies, Ra save him!—that the next pharaoh is equally amenable to receiving groups of foreigners who pledge their loyalty. Will you join me in this task?”

Unhesitatingly, Snefru raised his cup, and pledged, “To Egypt! And to the happy outcome of your plans for an orderly succession, Ra willing. May all nations find refuge in our happy land!”

It was late; the dawn from peeking over the eastern cliffs. Thus having pledged their fealty to one another, Joseph and Snefru embraced and parted. Joseph opened the door with his own hands and asked:

“Will you go home, Friend Snefru? The hours grow late, and we both have a full slate of royal duties for tomorrow.”

“Aye, Friend Joseph, I will. I am weary, and your delicious wine has befuddled my head. I have a slight headache, as well.”

“Go with Ra,” said the Hebrew, patting his friend on the back. He closed the door, saying, “No, Boy; no, Pami, my servant. What, may I not tend the door’s openings and closings in my own house?”

After Joseph bade him farewell and goodnight, Snefru did not go home, contrary to what he had told his friend. Instead, he walked a short distance through the streets of Heliopolis, turning into a nondescript hut, built of baked clay. There, by the light of a single oil-lamp, he found a short, squat, but muscular Nubian, whose face was pocked by old smallpox scars. His head was shaved, and he gave the impression of having been a wrestler or boxer years before. A half-drunk cup of barley beer stood before him, and he stared silently—first, at the moon clearly visible through the window, and then, at Snefru, whom he grinned to see.

“What have you to report, Minister of Protocol Snefru—or, shall I say, Raneb, since that is your real name? Make it worth my while, and I will not cut your wife’s throat. Such a lovely throat it is—”

Snefru—or was it Raneb?—began to tremble. “Please, Royal Security Sergeant Osorkon, spare my family, as you have kindly done all these years—have I not been a faithful spy for you?”

“Well,” said the sergeant, “it did take my seizing your oldest boy and putting him into the prison-ships to convince you, but yes, you have been a good and useful spy. What have you to report? Don’t make me ask you again.”

“I spent tonight with Joseph, Lord Sergeant,” stammered Snefru, “and came posthaste to report our conversation.”

“The Hebrew slave-boy and lover, eh? Wine was involved, my drunken Snefru,” nodded the lawman, “for I can smell it on your breath. Well, tell your story, and quickly! Otherwise, I will send your daughter, in chains, to the copper mines in the Western Desert. A shame: such a lovely thing she is, indeed….”

Hearing this, tears sprang to the Sudanese’s eyes; he stood, and told Sgt. Osorkon all that he and Joseph had discussed. As Snefru spoke, the web of suspicion and rebelliousness grew around Joseph….

“Perhaps a spell of slavery for these pesky Hebrews would be in order,” mused the sergeant, “That would end their plotting. No slavery this year or the next, but I can see it coming, I’ll wager. If not this pharaoh, Ra save him! Then, the next.” He laughed, a bitter laugh.

Outside the window, the Egyptian moon looked down, in sadness and suspicion.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance

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