By Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell & Esther Edelsburg
This week we come to the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. At the conclusion of Parashat Miketz Joseph’s brothers believed that all was lost; they were convinced that Benjamin had fallen into the hands of Pharaoh’s vizier who had supplied them with food only to set a trap for them. And so in this portion, Joseph came forward to plead with Egyptian vizier in a moving speech in which he mentions the name of his father no less than twelve times and several time refers to the word “brother.” Here is the gist of his words, “’So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father, and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the gray head of our father down to the grave in sorrow. Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’ Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father’” (Gen. 44:30-34). The continuation of the story is well-known to us, “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance’” (Gen. 45:4-7).
After this, Joseph commanded his brothers to return to Canaan and to bring their father, Jacob, to Egypt. “Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. And Jacob blessed Pharaoh…” (Gen. 47:7). Now, what exactly does the Torah mean by the words, “And Jacob blessed Pharaoh”? According to Rashi, “This is [just] a greeting as is customary for all who occasionally appear before royalty.” To this, Sforno (a medieval Italian commentator) adds “He did not bow down neither when he entered nor when he departed.” Both Rashi and Sforno (and others) sought to emphasize that Jacob wanted to show respect to Pharaoh as a matter of courtesy while in no way showing obeisance to him as a person would to divinity – by bowing down (in Egypt Pharaoh was thought of as a human god, the son of Ra).
Nachmanides (the Ramban) does not agree with Rashi and the other commentators. He argued that, “It is not in keeping with royal etiquette that a person should greet a monarch. No, this was an actual blessing. For it is the custom among elders and the pious when they meet with royalty to bless them with wealth, property, honor and the rising glory of their kingdom. In just this regard the scripture quotes Bathsheba when she met with the king, “May my kord King David live forever!” (1Ki. 1:31). But, when he left Pharaoh’s presence he “blessed” that authority should be taken from him, to which our sages said (Tanhuma Naso 26), That the Nile should rise to his legs.”
- What is the significance of the differences between the perspectives of Rashi and the other commentators and Ramban regarding the style (and content) of Jacob’s “blessing” of Pharaoh?
- What do you think about Ramban’s interpretation, especially his take on the difference between the blessing when Jacob met Pharaoh and the “blessing” when he took his leave from him?
- In his speech, Judah took responsibility for his father and for his brothers. He also mentioned the preference and love that Jacob had for Benjamin. Judah underwent a long process through the stories of the selling of Joseph and the story of Tamar before he was able to accept responsibility for his actions. For us as well, there may have been times when we have had to endure long processes for growth. What helps or has helped you deal with the past in order to take responsibility for your actions?