What We Tell and What We Don’t

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Stories We Tell

Parshat Vayigash opens with Yehudah arguing with/begging Yosef to let Binyamin return to Ya’akov. He doesn’t simply make that request, he retells the history of the current encounter with Yosef, a narrative Ramban considers superfluous, since Yosef had lived it as well.

Bereshit Rabbah 93;6 said this was Yehudah’s way of rebuking Yosef for threatening to keep Binyamin. In the course of the story, he reminded Yosef that they had made clear how the loss of Binyamin would threaten Ya’akov’s health, and that Yosef had promised Binyamin safe passage.

Ramban is dissatisfied with that idea, since he sees no reason to think that Yosef’s promises indemnified Binyamin against punishment for theft of Yosef’s goblet. Why would Yehudah think the history of how Binyamin came to be there would affect how Yosef dealt with a crime?

He instead suggests this was to arouse Yosef’s compassion. He meant to remind Yosef of Ya’akov’s attachment to his youngest, an attachment deepened by the disappearance of Binyamin’s older brother, the reason Binyamin did not come originally, and why Yehudah had had to guarantee his safety. Once Yosef understood the gravity of the situation, the damage to Ya’akov were Binyamin to be left behind, Yehudah hoped he would convince Yosef to accept him as replacement.

In Ramban’s version, Yehudah tells Yosef it would be a charitable gesture to take Yehudah, the more capable worker, over Binyamin. It’s an example of something I’m not sure we always notice, that when we are currying favor with powerful others, we will sometimes flatter them by telling them that some act of theirs is righteous or generous when it’s actually just a lesser evil than they had contemplated. Yosef had trumped up the charges on Binyamin, as all parties to this conversation knew, but Yehudah said what he had to say for his father’s benefit.

The Pressure on Yosef

45;1 says Yosef could no longer control himself before all who were standing there. Ramban thinks the assemblage would have included members of the royal household and ordinary Egyptians (perhaps there as part of the commerce in grain); Yehudah’s story moved them all enough that they begged/pressured Yosef to accede to his request. Yosef could not resist all of them (another example, as we saw last time, that Ramban thought that apparently absolute rulers were not as absolute as we fool ourselves into thinking), so he called out to clear the room.

That’s because he was going to have to remind his brothers they had sold him into slavery. To save them the embarrassment and to avoid a worse outcome, that Par’oh’s retinue would dismiss them as traitorous (who would sell their own brother!), and wonder why they should welcome them to Egypt. And, since Yosef was of that stock, their trust of him would be reduced as well.

What Ya’akov Never Knew

45;27 says the brothers told Ya’akov all Yosef had said, but Ramban thinks they, and everyone else, left out any indication that the brothers had sold Yosef. The brothers feared the kind of tongue lashing/curse that Reuven, Shimon, and Levi were already slated to get at the end of Ya’akov’s life, and Yosef was not going to bear tales on them.

In Ramban’s view, Ya’akov spent the rest of his life thinking Yosef had gotten lost looking for his brothers, was abducted by slave traders, and sold. That explains why the brothers have to claim, 50;16, that Ya’akov left word Yosef should forgive them. Had Ya’akov really said that, he should/would have said it to Yosef’s face. Ramban assumes it never happened, and they made it up in the hopes it would stop Yosef’s vengeance.

For Ramban, family secrets mean that even one of our Avot never knew the whole story of his family, of the relations among his children.

Yocheved’s Age at Moshe’s Birth

46;15 says thirty-three descendants of Leah were among those who went to Egypt with Ya’akov, but the list only has thirty-two names. Rabbinic tradition resolved that by saying Yocheved (Moshe’s mother) was born as they arrived. Ibn Ezra disliked the idea, because it would mean the Torah neglected to mention the remarkable miracle that she had a baby at age 130 (the Jews were in Egypt 210 years, and Moshe was eighty when they left).

Ramban says he has to answer, lest Ibn Ezra be wise in his own eyes in tearing down an idea of our Sages. [There’s an irony there, since Ramban is not afraid to register when he isn’t convinced by some statement of Chazal’s, or that it’s not the simplest reading of the text. In addition, Ibn Ezra passed away thirty years before Ramban was born, so whatever Ramban wrote would not prevent Ibn Ezra from thinking anything. I think Ramban thinks Ibn Ezra touched on an important issue, and wants to clarify it for all readers].

Ramban first points out that someone had an age issue, no matter how we juggle events. Bamidbar 26;59 makes clear that Yocheved was Levi’s daughter. If we accept Chazal’s idea that she was born at or close to their arrival in Egypt, she was miraculously old at Moshe’s birth. If we try to avoid that by claiming she was born to Levi some years after their arrival in Egypt, we put Levi (at his daughter’s birth) into the age range of Avraham at Yitzchak’s. Since Levi was 43 when they arrived (Yosef was 39, and between them in birth order were Yehudah, Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher), if we want Yocheved to be significantly less than 130, we’d have to put Levi at her birth at close to or over age 100, which would only get her down to her seventies, still an advanced age for childbirth.

Miracles We Need Not Know

Ramban’s point is that she might have been 130 and the Torah would not bother to tell us, because the Torah does not tell us all the miraculous events of Biblical history. When a prophet predicts a miracle (even a hidden one), or an angel reveals himself while acting as told to by Hashem, that’s necessary knowledge, as are those occasions where Hashem openly violates the usual workings of the natural world. [He doesn’t explain why, but I think it’s because those provide more direct evidence of Divine Providence and involvement with the world].

Hidden miracles aren’t worth delineating because the Torah assumes there are hidden miracles everywhere. All the karet punishments predict that a person who deliberately violates certain prohibitions —Ramban uses the example of sexual wrongs and of eating prohibited fats— will be cut off from the nation, which includes dying prematurely or losing all of one’s children.

At the national level, the Torah warns that failure to observe the sabbatical year will lead to a lack of rain, which is clearly not a natural phenomenon (or is, but then means the laws of nature include a lot that is not discernible by usual human or scientific means). The same is true of the rewards Hashem promises—they will come in natural-looking ways, but there’s nothing natural about living longer, healthier, and richer lives because one keeps the ritual laws of the Torah.

For birth age, he points to the end of the book of Ruth, which lists four generations from entry to Israel until the birth of David– Salmon, Boaz, Oved, and Yishai. From other verses, we know that David was born 370 years after the entry to Israel. That means that if each of those men gave birth in the year they died (and we divide the 370 years equally), they would have been 93 when they gave birth. Yet Tanach makes no point of it, because it’s not what Tanach cares to stress.

Avraham’s Miracle

Besides, the miracle of Avraham’s birth was not Avraham’s age, since he had lived only a little more than half his expected life span, and old age is usually after a much larger proportion of one’s life (Ramban says that in his time, when people are expected to live to seventy, they’re not thought of as old until sixty. This is an important reminder of the untruth of the claim that people used to age differently when average life spans were shorter. They always aged at about the same rate, until very recently, just that many more people did not make it through the full range).

Not only that, but Avraham had many children with Keturah, after Sarah’s passing, yet the Torah does not dwell on it. For Ramban, the miracle of Yitzchak’s birth was that Avraham and Sarah had a child after all those years of infertility, and after Sarah had reached menopause. All we need to assume about Yocheved is that she had a similar life span to her father, in which case we have no reason to think she had hit menopause when she gave birth to Moshe. Hashem could also have delayed her menopause because Aharon and Moshe were the best ones to redeem the Jewish people, and the time had not yet arrived for that to happen.

These comments remind us that what we do and don’t say, stories we do and don’t tell, are about more than what’s true, or even what’s surprising. It’s about what is relevant and valuable to be told. Otherwise, it’s often left unsaid, closing off whole areas of history to we who come after.

About Gidon Rothstein

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