by R. Yair Kahn
I. Forgetting Yosef
Our Sages said, “shivim panim la-Torah” – in other words, the Torah lends itself to multiple interpretations and should be understood at various levels in order to be properly appreciated. One must acknowledge the complexity of the Biblical narrative. Thus, while studying the story of Yosef, one should recognize that it is both a religious story as well as a human one. It impacts both on the unfolding of Jewish history as well as the realization of Jewish destiny. It contains ethical norms alongside divine messages.
In the opening chapter of Shemot, we read that a new king arose in Egypt “who did not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8). How is it possible that this king did not know Yosef, the savior of all of Egypt? Our Sages explained that the king certainly knew of Yosef, but acted as if he did not know him. He denied Yosef’s role in saving Egypt. He became suspicious of the loyalty of Yosef and his family. But even this is hard to explain. What caused the king to forget all that Yosef had done for Egypt? What caused the king to view the children of Israel as a threat to Egyptian security?
From the perspective of Jewish destiny, this occurred through divine intervention. The prophecy revealed to Avraham, that his offspring would be enslaved in a foreign country, was about to be realized. The children of Israel were already in a foreign land; all that was missing was the beginning of the bondage. Our Sages dealt with this issue from a religious perspective as well. The children of Israel began to assimilate. Accordingly, the negative attitude of the Egyptian king and his ability to rally the people around him can be viewed as both a punishment and as divine intervention meant to thwart the attempt at assimilation.
However, I would like to focus on the human level. What social forces were at play that led to such a dramatic turnaround? What rules of human behavior brought about this drastic shift? These questions are not posed merely out of historical or biographic curiosity. I propose that there are important messages that can be discovered by exploring the Torah at this level as well.
II. The Oath
Our parasha opens with Yaakov’s request to be buried in Chevron. Yosef immediately agrees to this seemingly modest request. But then something strange occurs – Yaakov asks that Yosef take an oath. Why did Yaakov insist on an oath? Did he have no trust in Yosef? Did he doubt that Yosef would keep his word? Rashi relates to this difficulty later in the parasha. When Yosef asks permission to bury his father in Canaan, Pharaoh responds, “Go bury your father in accordance with your oath” (50:6). Rashi notes the unnecessary mention of the oath and comments: “But if not for the oath, I would not have let you.” According to Rashi, Yaakov apparently had the insight that Pharaoh would not be willing to allow Yosef to perform his father’s burial in Canaan. Therefore, even though he trusted Yosef, he requested that he take an oath in order to give Yosef leverage over Pharaoh. However, we are still puzzled by Pharaoh’s opposition to Yaakov’s seemingly modest request.
The explanation, however, is obvious. In a previous essay, we noted that Pharaoh invited Yosef’s family to come to his court and become part of Egyptian nobility. We showed how Yosef manipulated an arrangement whereby Yaakov and his family were permitted to live in Goshen. Apparently, Goshen was far from Pharaoh’s court, which would explain why Yaakov didn’t recognize Yosef’s children when Yosef came to visit Yaakov on his deathbed. Yosef had to distance his family to allow them to develop without the threat of assimilation.
In Pharaoh’s mind, however, despite the distance separating Goshen from the capital, Yosef’s family were members of the Egyptian nobility. In fact, even after conceding that Yaakov and his children could live in Goshen, he still offered the role of minister of the royal cattle to Yosef’s brothers. Moreover, when Yaakov died, he was treated as royalty; not only was he embalmed, but seventy days of national mourning were observed.
From this perspective, the request to bury Yaakov in Canaan amounts to a slap in the face of Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian nation. Was a seventy day period of national mourning declared for an elderly Hebrew? The Egyptians refused to eat together with Hebrews, let alone mourn them publicly! Yosef finds himself in a very difficult situation. He doesn’t even dare ask Pharaoh to bury his father in Canaan directly. Instead, he has Pharaoh hear about the request in a roundabout way:
And when the days of weeping for him were past, Yosef spoke unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying: ‘My father made me swear, saying: ‘Behold, I die; in my grave which I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.’ Now therefore let me go up and bury my father, and I will come back.” (50:4-5)
Moreover, when Yosef indirectly transmits Yaakov’s request, he changes the wording. Yaakov’s politically offensive statement, “Please do not bury me in Egypt,” was diplomatically left out.
Pharaoh felt obliged to grant Yaakov’s request due to the oath, but he tried to make the best of the situation. After the seventy days of national mourning, he tried to present the burial in Chevron as an Egyptian event:
And Yosef went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt and all the house of Yosef, and his brethren, and his father’s house; only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, they left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company. And they came to the threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond the Yarden, and there they cried a very great and sore cry; and he made a seven day mourning for his father. And when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning in the threshing-floor of Atad, they said: “This is a grievous mourning to the Egyptians.” Wherefore the name of it was called Avel-Mitzraim, which is beyond the Yarden. (50:7-11)
Mori vi-Rebbi, Ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, told us the following story, which he heard from one of the relatives of Baron Edmond Rothschild, also known as Ha-Nadiv Ha-Yadu’a, the famous philanthropist. Baron Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in Paris. In 1954, his family decided to move his remains and those of his wife to Ramat Ha-Nadiv in Zikhron Yaakov, Israel. When General Charles de Gaulle heard of the plans, he called James Rothschild, the baron’s youngest son, and said: “I always considered members of the Rothschild family loyal Frenchmen, only differing regarding religion. But let me ask you, who is a good Frenchman? One who is reared in France, educated in a French school, whose native tongue is French, who is ready to take up arms to defend France, and one who is buried in French soil when he dies. I can’t imagine a good Frenchman whose remains are moved elsewhere. I knew the Baron and had unlimited faith in him. I always defended him from those who doubted his loyalty to France. Now I see there is some truth to those accusations.”
Similarly, it seems that Pharaoh began to doubt Yosef’s loyalty to Pharaoh and to Egypt. When Yosef requested permission to bury his father in Ma’arat Ha-Machpela, why did he find it necessary to add that after the burial he would return toEgypt? Apparently, Pharaoh had room to suspect that Yosef would remain in Canaan. The Torah informs us that when the brothers went to Canaan to bury Yaakov, they left their young children, their flock, and their herd in Egypt. Why does the Torah have to tell us that their cows and sheep didn’t join the funeral procession? Apparently, the Torah is trying to hint to how much the Egyptians didn’t trust Yosef’s family.
The children of Israel leave Egypt, but they leave their children and flock behind – this is a clear reference to the time of Moshe. Moshe demanded that the people be allowed to leave Egypt for a three day journey in the desert to worship Hashem. Pharaoh, who was afraid that the Hebrew slaves would escape, responds, “So be Hashem with you, if I will let you go and your little ones” (Shemot 10:10). Later, when Pharaoh succumbs to the pressure of the plagues and allows the children to go, he says, “Go, serve Hashem; only let your flocks and your herds stay; let your little ones also go with you” (10:24). It seems that at the time of Moshe, Pharaoh based his position on the policy set at the time of Yosef, established to ensure that the children of Israel didn’t escape.
In any case, the point is clear. Pharaoh no longer considers Yosef’s family as loyal Egyptians. He is concerned that they will use their father’s funeral to escape back to Canaan, after milking Egypt during the years of famine.
Sefer Bereishit ends with Yosef administering an oath to his brothers: “God will surely remember you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (50: 25). Yosef, who is known in Egypt as Tzafnat Pa’aneach, the Egyptian prince, doesn’t dare ask Pharaoh to be buried in Ma’arat Ha-Machpela. He is left no choice but to ask his brothers that they return his remains to the land of his fathers. We can almost see the dark clouds of galut approaching as the sefer closes with Yosef trapped in Egypt: “So Yosef died, at the age of one hundred and ten years. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26).
III. A New King Arose in Egypt
At the beginning of the essay, we asked what led to the turnabout in Yosef’s popularity. Why did Pharaoh and the Egyptians forget all Yosef had done for Egypt? What brought about the transformation from savior to threat? Perhaps the trigger was Yaakov’s request to be buried in Ma’arat Ha-Machpela.
Furthermore, it is reasonable that once Yosef was viewed as a foreigner, more faithful to his own clan than to Egypt, Yosef’s past policies were re-evaluated. The section in the Torah that describes Yosef’s economic policy is bookended by Yosef’s preferential treatment of his family. The section begins:
And Yosef sustained his father and his brothers and his father’s entire household bread per child. And there was no bread in the entire land for the famine was very harsh and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished due to the famine. (47:12-13)
The section concludes:
And as for the people, he removed them to the cities, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other end… And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they took possession therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly. (47:21, 27)
We noted in a previous essay, that Yosef’s economic policy was appreciated by the masses. But what did the people think when Yosef’s loyalty became suspect? These verses, describing the privileges enjoyed by Yosef’s family, echo in our ears when we read how the new king of Egypt enslaves the children of Israel. It was Yosef the Hebrew who used some mystical ability to steal Egyptian money, herds, and lands. It was the Hebrew who introduced mass slavery into Egypt and forced the Egyptians to move from one corner of Egypt to the other, while allowing his own family of Hebrews to take possession of the very best of Egyptian land. Perhaps it was not so hard for the king to mobilize the masses against the children of Israel. After all, they felt justified in taking away the freedom of the Hebrews to ensure that they couldn’t escape after milking the land of Egypt. Perhaps they were able to rationalize enslaving the children of Israel as a way to retrieve all that had been taken from them.
We noted that the enslavement of the children of Israel occurred after Yosef introduced mass slavery to Egypt. We should ask whether this is merely historical irony, or perhaps a tint of criticism. After all, in the end, Yosef did take advantage of a natural disaster and human suffering to enslave a people. The enslaving of Egypt came back to haunt the children of Israel. Perhaps Israel’s bondage came to teach us a lesson. The Torah, after all, uses our experience of the Egyptian bondage to teach us to be sensitive to the suffering of the vulnerable: “Do not take the garment of a widow as collateral and remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Devarim 24:17-18).
IV. Ma’aseh Avot Siman La-Banim
In conclusion, the story of Yosef in Egypt certainly falls into the category of ma’aseh avot siman la-banim. Throughout the galut, there have been situations in which Jews have played important roles for the benefit of the host state. Often, such Jews have been faced with dilemmas analogous to that of Yosef, torn between commitment to Jewish values and traditions on the one hand and loyalty to the host state on the other. When these Jews do almost everything for the good of the host state, are they always accepted? Often, despite all their efforts, there are those that will accuse them of being disloyal, who will cast doubt upon them along with their fellow Jews. Some will argue that they can’t be trusted in times of crisis. Like Pharaoh before them, they will say: “If there be a war, they will join forces with our enemies and attack us and leave the land” (Shemot 1: 10).
This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission.