Parashat Vayigash

Friday, December 14, 2018 /6 Tevet, 5779
Parashat Vayigash  Genesis 44:18-47:27

Dear Friends,
A little quiz…

Question: How comfortable are you in speaking Hebrew, or Yiddish?

Answer: Likely not so comfortable.

Question: What language did Joseph use when he reconciled with his brothers, after his estrangement, and after they came down to Egypt to procure provisions during the famine? Joseph had been living in Egypt and even had taken a new, Egyptian name. He could speak both Egyptian, and presumably, Hebrew. Therefore, which language did he use?

Answer: Hebrew. The Torah indicates that Joseph dismissed his Egyptian attendants when he revealed himself to his brothers. Thus, without an Egyptian interpreter present, it is likely that Joseph stunned his shocked brothers by speaking in their tongue, when he disclosed, “I am Joseph, your brother.” And, the surprised brothers, astounded that the Egyptian vizier spoke in their tongue, understood.

What does this teach?

The Torah offers a subtle but clear message on the importance of retaining the language of our people. Yes, we have translations, just as they had interpreters in Egypt. And, yes, even in Jerusalem at the time following the first Exile, when our people returned from their forced stay in Babylonia, they needed meturgamim – interpreters to translate Torah from Hebrew into Babylonian for the recently returned exiles. Yet, these are consolations to circumstance. The value of comfort, or fluency, in the language of our people allows far more than communication; it engenders community, develops discourse, fosters intimacy, and cultivates sanctity.

In our Tradition, Hebrew is called the safah k’dusha – the sacred tongue, and Yiddish is called the mama loshen – the mother tongue. The sages of our Tradition realized that language is more than mere speech and simple transmission of ideas. Language is the glue of peoplehood and preserves boundaries of our being.

Hence, the significance of Hebrew. It is my fervent assertion that the Jew who is comfortable with Hebrew is likely to be comfortable with Judaism, and the Jew who is uncomfortable with Hebrew is at risk with Judaism.

Joseph spoke Hebrew.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Doug Kohn