Getting Ya’akov to Egypt, Possibly for Jewish Slavery

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Divine Spirit in Egypt

In the middle of his speech to his brothers about bringing Ya’akov to Egypt, 45;12, Yosef stresses that they see, and Binyamin his brother sees, ki fi ha-medaber aleichem, it is my mouth speaking to you. Meshech Hochmah offers three readings of why Yosef found it worth emphasizing.

First, he suggests Yosef was worried Ya’akov would refuse to come, because ruah ha-kodesh, the Divine Spirit, does not usually visit people outside of Israel (as Mo’ed Katan 25a says). While Ya’akov also had not had ruah ha-kodesh in many years in Israel, that was because he was mourning Yosef. Once he hears his son is alive, his ruah ha-kodesh will return [as, indeed, Rashi tells us happened, 45;27, where the verse says Ya’akov’s spirit came alive, and tradition took it to mean his ability to hear from the Divine Spirit], and he will not want to risk it by leaving.

Yosef says ki fi to say he was himself speaking with the Divine Spirit, because he, like Ya’akov, had experienced it in Israel before he came to Egypt. People like that could experience it outside of Israel as well (as tradition says to explain Yehezkel’s referring to nehar kevar, that he kevar, already, had had prophecy in Israel before being exiled).

Ya’akov could have both, live near his son and still enjoy ruah ha-kodesh.

It’s Not For Me, It’s What I Can Do For You

In his second possibility, Meshech Hochmah thinks Yosef was focused on the aleichem, to you, part of the phrase. He worried Ya’akov would suspect Yosef wanted Ya’akov to come to Egypt to boost Yosef’s prestige. Ya’akov was likely to think a former slave’s hold on power was tenuous, regardless of how well he had predicted the famine, and might think to bring Ya’akov (whom Meshech Hochmah assumes was well-known and respected, thought of as a prince of Gd) to secure his position, without regard for the cost to his father [a fairly dismal view of how Yosef thought his father thought of him].

Yosef therefore says to the brothers “you see I am talking aleichem, for you (the easiest translation is to you). I am as high up as I can get, Ya’akov’s coming won’t help me in any way, it’s for you,” he was saying.

Last, he suggests Yosef was explaining why he could not support Ya’akov in Canaan. Had he been an Egyptian, his sending precious stored grain out of the country would not arouse suspicion. As a Hebrew, his loyalties were somewhat suspect, and were he to begin exporting for free, he would raise more than a few eyebrows. He needs Ya’akov to come to him because fi ha-medaber aleichem, I am speaking to you in Hebrew, the language all Egypt knows is my native tongue, is why I cannot send grain to you there.

Reassuring Ya’akov he could have ruah ha-kodesh, assuring Ya’akov it was not out of selfish motives, or explaining why moving to Egypt was the only option, three possibilities buried in the simple phrase ki fi ha-medaber aleichem.

You Can’t Know Why You Have to Go to Egypt

On Ya’akov’s way down to Egypt, 46;4, Gd appears to him, promises to go there with him, and that Yosef would place his hand on his eyes. Meshech Hochmah thinks Gd was responding to Ya’akov’s (unstated in the text) confusion as to what purpose there was for him to go there.

Gd mentions Yosef to say that the events of his life should show Ya’akov Divine providence is often beyond human understanding. Just as Ya’akov had not  understood why Gd took Yosef from him all these years, he needed to accept it was not his place to attempt to understand the current plan, either.

None of them would have thought Yosef’s being kidnapped to Egypt would end with his ruling the country, able to convey the ideals of the Avraham family so broadly. Ya’akov needed to let Yosef’s lessons guide him now here, to cover his intellectual “eyes,” stop thinking about what it could mean, and just go along.

[It’s obviously only a partial message, because many times we have the right and likely responsibility to attempt to move events, local or global, in directions that seem best to us. For Ya’akov, in this situation, yielding was the job of the day.]

What Did Par’oh End Up Owning?

Two comments, four verses apart, give contradictory indications of what Yosef extracted from the Egyptians for the grain they needed to survive [and Meshech Hochmah seems to contradict himself, too]. In 47;19, the people of Egypt ask Yosef to purchase them and their land in return for food.

Meshech Hochmah assumes Yosef abhorred slavery, the idea of one human owning another. It is why verse twenty speaks of his purchasing only the land for Par’oh. The people were contracted as day laborers, the reason verse 23 quotes Yosef saying he had purchased them ha-yom, today, only for that day. To make clear the land was Par’oh’s, he made them move to cities; otherwise, nothing would have changed.

[Aside from the very different view he has in the next comment we will see, I think the Torah allow for slavery of some sorts, certainly with non-Jews. I know he knew any verses I do, but it sure seems like the Torah accepts versions of slavery, so the idea Yosef would never have purchased people has the whiff of Meshech Hochmah imposing his preconceptions on the text. Although I admit, I may be hypersensitive to that.]

Regardless of what I think, Meshech Hochmah’s own comment on verse 23 takes it more simply. He says Yosef purchased the Egyptians to set up one of the last scenes of the Exodus, when the Jews (at Gd’s request) took items of silver and gold. Centuries later, the Egyptians sued for repayment of those items (a story in Sanhedrin 91a, Alexander the Great entertained several lawsuits against the Jews). The Jewish representative, Gevihah b. Pesisa, said they gladly would do so, if the Egyptians in turn provided the salary of the Jewish slaves for 210 years.

Meshech Hochmah questions the logic, since Par’oh had enslaved the Jews, not the Egyptians. He solves the problem with his idea here, the Egyptians were bought by Yosef for Par’oh, so all of their possessions belong to their owner, making them fair game to collect Par’oh’s debts.

[I have no thoughts on how to resolve the contradiction between the two comments.] However we do it, Meshech Hochmah clearly dislikes slavery and also thinks it usefully explains why the Egyptians could be implicated—at least financially—in Par’oh’s having done it to the Jews.

For Va-YigashMeshech Hochmah thinks Yosef felt the need to justify his call for Ya’akov to come to Egypt (in three ways!), Gd told Ya’akov not to try to figure out why he had to go to Egypt, and Yosef either made clear slavery was wrong, or made the Egyptians into slaves of Par’oh so the Jews could leave with the wealth Gd had promised Avraham. The convoluted workings of the divine plan, indeed, given assists by Yosef.

About Gidon Rothstein

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