Parashat Vayigash / Water From the Well

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Joseph Recognized by His Brothers,' by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois (1863).
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the opening of the midrashic work Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) Rabbah, King Solomon’s literary achievement is depicted in a series of parables. The Torah is likened to a palace with many doors. All those who entered it lost their way until a wise person, namely, King Solomon, came along, took a small bundle of thread – the imagery of the Song of Songs – and hung it over the entrance and allowed it to trail through the hallways so all who entered the palace could find the way out.

In another example, the Torah is likened to a field of reeds. No one knew how to enter the field until a wise person came along, took up a sickle and cut a path through the reeds. Now all could enter the field through the path carved out for them.

In a third example, the Torah is spoken of as a large crate of fruit that no one could lift until a wise person came along and fitted the crate with handles. Now everyone could lift it.

King Solomon’s literary enterprise is depicted by the sages as an act that allowed access to the Torah. In the midrash, the Torah is referred to as inaccessible space that has been made available to all through the Song of Songs and its rich imagery. According to this line of thinking, the Song of Songs is not a work with an allegorical meaning but is rather, itself, an allegory of the Torah, an allegory that imparts the Torah’s verses with meaning.

One of the most exquisite parables in the above-mentioned paragraph in Shir Hashirim Rabbah describes the interpretive process that is facilitated by the Song of Songs: “Rabbi Haninah said, ‘[The Torah is like] a deep well that is full of cool water that no one is able to reach and drink. Along came someone who equipped the well with a rope, drew the water and drank it. From now on, everybody can draw the well’s water and drink it. Thus, from one thing to another, from one parable to the next, Solomon uncovered the Torah’s secret, as it is written, “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1). Through his parables, Solomon uncovered the Torah’s words’” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:8).

The Torah is likened to water in a well and Solomon’s parables are likened to a rope that is thrown down that well to enable its water to be drawn and quench the thirst of the reader. This image is copied almost word for word from a midrash dealing with the first verse in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).

“It is written, ‘Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out’ [Prov. 20:5] as with a deep well that is full of cool water that no one is able to reach or drink. Along came someone who tied a rope to the well, drew the water and drank it. From now on, everybody can draw the well’s water and drink it. Thus, Judah didn’t move until he spoke his words, which were comments on what Joseph said; Judah did so until he finally understood what was in Joseph’s heart, as it is written, ‘Then Judah came near unto him’” (Bereisheet Rabbah 93:4).

The midrash opens with a verse from Proverbs whose subject is the “counsel” embedded deep inside a person’s heart. This counsel is likened to “deep water” that only a person of understanding can draw out. The midrash places that counsel deep inside a well that contains cool water and depicts the act of drawing that water in the same way the work of interpretation is described in Shir Hashirim Rabbah – namely, as the rope being tied to the well, and so on. The midrash then arrives at the subject of the parable – Judah, who, standing before Joseph, tells his story, which begins in the first verse of this week’s portion.

Joseph wants Benjamin to remain by his side, and he also wants to send his other brothers back to their father; the brothers, however, firmly oppose this idea. It is clear that what is needed now is the delicate work of mediation, a task that Judah volunteers to undertake. He approaches Joseph and speaks to him directly: “Then Judah came near unto him, and said: ‘Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant; for thou art even as Pharaoh’” (Gen. 44:18). He recounts his story to Joseph from beginning to end (the end being the very moment when he stands before the Egyptian viceroy).

Judah’s story produces the desired effect: “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren” (Gen. 45:1).

The midrash presents the verse from Proverbs as a description of the relationship between Joseph and Judah. Joseph’s “counsel” – his true identity – is deep in his heart, concealed from view just like the water down below in the well. Judah is the person whose understanding enables him to draw out the truth from Joseph, to reach the water and to draw it out of the deep well.

However, the midrash goes beyond simply juxtaposing the verse from Proverbs and the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion; it copies, almost word for word, the parable from Shir Hashirim Rabbah.

It is clear that the parable was copied from Shir Hashirim Rabbah and placed inside Bereisheet Rabbah, and not vice versa, because, as Chanoch Albeck points out in his commentary on the latter book, the words “From then on, everybody was able to draw the well’s water and to drink it” precisely fit the subject of the parable in Shir Hashirim Rabbah – but do not quite fit the topic of the passage in Bereisheet Rabbah. Apparently, the sentence was copied almost incidentally along with the more relevant parts of the parable.

In Shir Hashirim Rabbah, the homilist presents King Solomon as the founder of biblical exegesis and, in effect, the spiritual parent of the sages who read biblical texts, identify their essence and, through their interpretive actions, impart to those texts both meaning and depth. The shift of this picture to the dialogue between Judah and Joseph likens Judah’s actions to the drawing of water lying deep within a well, but it also turns the relationship between Judah and Joseph into an allegorical depiction of the biblical commentator’s work.

Joseph is a biblical verse whose identity has two sides – external and internal, revealed and concealed. Judah understands Joseph’s heart – that is, he identifies Joseph’s internal “meaning”; Judah then creates his speech, which is, according to this midrash, a mediating interpretive text that, like Solomon’s Song of Songs and the midrashim of the sages, has the function of drawing the cool water from the depths of the well. This water seeks to burst out of the well but it needs an exit route, which the biblical exegetist must create for it.

The exegetist who can understand the text and performs the task of interpretation properly can enable the concealed meaning of a biblical verse to burst forth in tearful rejoicing and to reveal itself to him. Essentially, this is a redefinition of the role of the exegetist, who is not expected to explain the meaning of the biblical text or to translate or simplify it, but is instead expected to lure the text into revealing itself before his very eyes.