THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayigash – פרשת ויגש
December 23, 2017 – ה טבת תשעח
This essay is dedicated by the Hoffman family in memory of Chaim Miller חיים יחיאל מיכל בן רפאל פייוועל שניאור ז”ל; by Eugeny Rubashevsky & Tatyana Tchaikovskaya in memory of Leah Rubashevsky Z”L.
Unable to control his emotions any longer, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. He then instructs them to return quickly to Canaan and bring down to Egypt both their father, Jacob, and their own respective households. As the eleven brothers depart, Joseph issues one last warningאל תרגזו בדרך (Genesis 45:24). The meaning is not clear. JPS translates “See that ye fall not out by the way.” Robert Alter renders, instead, “Do not be perturbed on the journey.” He explains: “[M]any interpreters have imagined that Joseph is warning his brothers not to yield to mutual recrimination and perhaps fall to blows on the way home. But the primary meaning of the verb is ‘to quake’ or ‘to shake,’ either physically . . . or emotionally . . . and it is the antonym of being tranquil or at peace. In all likelihood, Joseph is reassuring his brothers that they need not fear any lurking residue of vengefulness on his part that would turn the journey homeward into a trap.”
An accurate understanding of the verse depends upon the meaning of the verbal root רגז. Biblical Hebrew has three different verbs with this same root: fear or trembling (Exodus 15:14, I Samuel 14:15); awakening from slumber to quick motion (I Samuel 28:15); anger or wrath (Habakuk 3:2).
Does Professor Alter’s translation, or that of JPS, more accurately capture the sense the Torah would have us understand? What did Joseph fear might happen? Onkelos readsלא תתנצון באורחא “do not fight along the way.” Pseudo-Jonathan explains that Joseph feared the brothers would fight over who principally bore the guilt for having sold him into slavery. Mutual recrimination on the long journey home could lead, tragically, to a second round of fraternal violence. According to this approach, Joseph is essentially reiterating what he had already said in the beginning of the conversation: “Let it not anger you that you have sold me unto here (45:5).” Rashi and Ibn Ezra favor this approach. Rashi refers to it as the פשט or basic meaning of the verse, in contrast to the interpretations found in Midrashic literature that are less textually-grounded.
Rabbi Elazar’s view was that Joseph instructed his brothers not to become overly involved in discussing halakhic matters, lest they fight and be distracted along the way (Ta’anit 10b). The Talmud then questions this interpretation. How could Joseph issue such instructions, since the tradition is that two scholars who travel on the road and do not discuss Torah matters are worthy of by being burned? Answer: Travelers should merely review their Torah lessons; this activity will not overly tax their mental faculties. But they should not delve into a deep analysis of halakhah lest that become a dangerous distraction.
Rabbi Elazar’s interpretation is purely homiletic. It is entirely divorced from the plain reading of the text. He utilized this Biblical passage solely as a springboard to hold forth about appropriate behavior for traveling fourth century scholars.
[In several places, the Aggadic tradition anachronistically inserts Torah study into the tale of the Hebrews’ descent into Egypt — four hundred years before the Revelation at Sinai. Examples: 1) Joseph sent wagons to ease his father’s journey (Genesis 45:27). The Midrash explains that, upon seeing the wagons, Jacob remembered that his last Torah study session with Joseph, twenty-two years earlier, concerned the commandment regarding the decapitated heifer (Genesis Rabbah 94:3). 2) Jacob sent Judah ahead as a trailblazer (Genesis 46:28). The Midrash asserts that Judah was sent in the vanguard in order to establish houses of Talmud study (Tanhuma Vayigash 11).]
Another Aggadic interpretation explains that Joseph instructed his brothers not to take long strides, a euphemism for traveling too quickly. He also advised them to seek lodging for each night before sunset (Genesis Rabbah 94:24). These precautions are not specific to the Joseph narrative, however. Here, the Biblical text served merely as a convenient basis from which the sages could expound advice about travel safety, generally.
According to Rashbam and Ramban, in our verse Joseph was telling his brothers not to fear bandits while traveling on the road to Canaan. The brothers’ caravan was weighed down by a large supply of food and other valuables, so there was good reason to fear highwaymen. Famine-induced desperation would also tend to increase the risk of banditry.
Robert Alter and Ramban both conclude thatרגז should be understood as quaking in fear. However, as indicated earlier, Alter sees the source of the brothers’ potential fear as Joseph himself. Alter’s explanation is not found in any of the classical commentators; yet, it seems to be supported by several details of the narrative: (a) Joseph has already established a pattern of alternating between friendship and hostility toward his brothers. Twice, he acted stealthily to expose the brothers to accusations of theft: planting the money from the initial trip in their grain bags, and planting his goblet in Benjamin’s sack. (b) The brothers were reluctant to draw close to Joseph, both physically and psychologically. Joseph does all the talking and the brothers are silent. 45:15 states that the brothers finally do speak to Joseph but, conspicuously, no dialogue is set forth in the text. All it says is that the brothers “spoke with him.” Since the exact wording, the timing, and the placement within the text of Biblical dialogue are almost always significant in terms of informing us about the character of the speaker and advancing thematic development, the absence, in 45:15, of any dialogue is itself meaningful. (c) After Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would exact retribution upon them. Joseph is forced, once again, to reassure his brothers that he harbors no malice toward them (50:19).
Yet I differ with both Ramban and Professor Alter in concluding that the sense of the verse favors understanding רגז as meaning “quarreling.” Joseph could easily have suspected belligerent behavior by his brothers toward each other on their trip home. Why? Because the sons of Jacob had a long history of mutual hostility. After all, the Torah tells us that the sons of Leah were abusive to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah; everyone hated Joseph; Reuben was in rivalry with Judah over the leadership; Simon and Levi acted independently (in the matter of Dinah’s rape) without consulting the others; etc.
During the family emergency brought on by famine, everyone put aside his differences to act in concert for the entire clan. Now that that crucial moment had passed, and since the brothers had survived their encounter with the threatening Egyptian viceroy, that temporary unity could easily be lost. They might now assume, complacently, that they were safe with a family member sitting on the throne of Egypt; therefore, the battling sons of Jacob might backslide and revert to their usual state of inter-sibling acrimony.
Viewed in this light, Joseph’s warning has meaning for all Jewish generations in the spirit of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים. On several occasions throughout our history, the Jewish People have been able to overcome our factionalism and act together to defend ourselves from external threats. When the tiger is at – or within — our gates, it is not that hard to put aside petty differences. But when the crisis is over and the threat has been averted, we tend to lose that precious commodity called אחדות. One need look no further that contemporary Israeli society. The unprecedented unity engendered by the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Frankael, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah lasted only briefly. That sense of togetherness was lost in the subsequent round of Israeli political intrigue and an intra-Orthodox rabbinicalspat. Would that the Jewish People could better heed Joseph’s warning even in calmer days – since the threats we face, all over the world, seem only to be increasing each day.