Five Rashis a Week, Vayigash: Relationships and Ambiguity

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen ben Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

The Ambiguity of Language

In 44;18, Yehudah asks Yosef not to be angered by what he is about to say, כי כמוך כפרעה,  roughly “for like you, like Paro’oh.” Rashi notes the simple meaning, that Yehudah is declaring his respect for Yosef, equal to his respect for Par’oh, to make clear ahead of time that he does not mean to give offense with anything he says.

Then Rashi offers three Midrashic readings. First, that Yehudah is threatening that Yosef will come down with the same disease that afflicted the Par’oh who took Sarah from Avraham. Remarkably, this assumes it was separating loved ones from each other that incurred the punishment, not the interruption of a spousal relationship (or the taking of another man’s wife as his own), since otherwise that story is irrelevant to what Yosef would bring upon himself by separating Binyamin and his father.

A second option is that Yehudah was accusing Yosef of also not living up to his word, since he had asked only to see Binyamin and was now threatening to keep him there. (Rashi doesn’t clarify how Par’oh doesn’t keep his word; in Rashi’s times, it might have been obvious that rulers don’t fulfill their promises, as it is to Avot 2;3, which says that rulers seem like they are friends and intimates, but only for as long as it is convenient or useful).

Rashi’s third possibility is that Yehudah is warning Yosef that if he angers him, Yehudah will kill him and Par’oh alike, neither of them a challenge.

I’m taken with the idea that keeping Binyamin is similar to Par’oh keeping Sarah, because it makes the sexual part of it irrelevant. I had always thought Par’oh’s crime was taking another man’s wife, but this Rashi invites us to think differently about it, to see that the kidnapping was the crime, the separating loved ones from each other.

I’m even more taken with the ambiguity Rashi’s various interpretations reveal in the original phrase. “For you are like Par’oh,” Rashi is showing us, can mean many things. It can mean you’re as important as Par’oh, as evil as Par’oh, as untrustworthy as Par’oh, as easy to defeat as Par’oh, and probably more.

It’s a reminder that language isn’t always as clear as we might want it to be, and often leaves us with many legitimate options to confront if we want to get to the truth. That doesn’t mean that we can interpret phrases any old way we want, but it cautions us against too quickly settling on the one single reading of a phrase. If Rashi thought any one of these was the lone truth of the phrase, he wouldn’t have offered the others.

When Denial Fails

When reporting the conversation that led to Binyamin’s being allowed to go with the brothers, Yehudah quotes his father as saying that if a tragedy happened to Binyamin, the brothers would send Ya’akov agonizingly to his grave. Rashi comments that Binyamin was Ya’akov’s buffer against confronting the death of Rachel and the disappearance of Yosef. Were Binyamin to die, it would be as if all three happened on the same day, too great a tragedy to absorb or survive.

It’s a lesson in the dangers of denial. By walling ourselves from uncomfortable, distressing, or agonizing truths, we can push off the day we will have to reckon with them. For as long as that works, it can seem the better strategy, protecting us from that which we feel unable to face. But it doesn’t process the emotions, it doesn’t allow the reactions we would have to facing those truths to be felt, acknowledged, and allowed to heal. If anything, it helps them fester, since they become layered over with the years of avoidance. Should we be forced to relinquish our denial, we will then have to face what we could have faced all those years ago, as well as the accrued emotional debt of having worked so hard to avoid them.

Ya’akov’s grief over Rachel and Yosef sat inside him, Rashi implies, unhealed, because he had thrown his energies into Binyamin instead of into facing what seemed too great to face.

A risky strategy, as Rashi shows us.

A Relationship of Meaning

When Yosef sends his brothers to bring Ya’akov to Egypt, 45;27, he gives them a sign to prove that it is really him. The verse speaks of his sending עגלות (when, in some sense, Par’oh sent them).  These are literally carriages but the word can also refer to heifers, which Chazal took to indicate that Yosef and Ya’akov had been studying the laws of עגלה ערופה, the heifer whose neck is broken when a dead body is found between two cities and the murderer in unknown.

Some will be drawn to wonder at the assumption that Yosef and Ya’akov could have been discussing topics that were only given the Jewish people at Sinai, but that is a common motif in Talmudic and Rabbinic literature. I am more struck by the assumption that Ya’akov and Yosef’s relationship revolved around Torah enough that that was the best way for Yosef to identify himself to his father, the sugya they had been discussing more than twenty years before. What matters to us in a relationship a) sticks with us forever and b) reveals much about the nature of that relationship.

I don’t claim my own relationship with my father was always of that type, but I can say that I do still remember the sugya we discussed in the hospital the day before he passed away. It is a comfort to know that those last moments of our time together were spent on the positive and valuable.

The Honor We Owe Our Parents

Technically, Chazal define the mitzvah of honoring our parents as providing for specific needs of theirs. Twice in chapter 46, verse 1 and 29, Rashi notes ways to honor a parent when that parent is not there and would likely never know about it.

In verse 1, on his way down to Egypt, Ya’akov offers sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. Rashi explains that it is a greater obligation to honor a parent than a grandparent, which is why Avraham is not mentioned. In verse 29, Yosef attaches the horses to his chariot himself, which Rashi sees as a laudatory alacrity in going to honor his father.

How we refer to Hashem reflects our values and priorities—if we speak of Hashem as a Valorous Warrior, that’s because, at that moment, that’s the aspect of Hashem that matters to us most. In speaking of Hashem as the God of someone else, we are saying something about our relationship with Hashem, but also that that other person is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem.  Speaking of Hashem as the God of Yitzchak displays honor for Yitzchak, showing that, for Ya’akov, a crucial aspect of Hashem is that He was the God of his father.

Similarly, Yosef had many people who could attach the horses to the chariot, perhaps better or faster than he. Doing it himself shows a commitment and a concern that elevate the act to one of filial piety, even though there was no reason for Ya’akov to know. It’s not honoring our parents in front of them that matters, it’s experiencing them as important to our lives, as the guide star of our relationship with Hashem, and being personally invested in building our relationship with them, ourselves.

(This also, if you’ll pardon the digression, suggests another aspect to the question of whether we should hire people to take care of all our chores in life; economists would say that if we can use that time more productively, it makes sense to outsource it. There’s truth to that, but it has to be balanced against the truth that what we involve ourselves in shows a sense of priorities that we cannot communicate or display except by doing it ourselves. As Chazal say, better to do a mitzvah ourselves than have an agent do it, even if that agent will do it very well; that’s why important rabbis involved themselves in Shabbat preparations, even if they could hire others who would do the job just as well—what we do is more than an economic good, it’s an act of self-expression, of priorities actualization).

The Discomfort of Being Strangers

Chapter 47 tells a story I continue to find strange, even as Rashi claims it is there to show Yosef’s commitment to fulfilling his obligations to Par’oh. Yosef uses the stores of grain Par’oh has amassed to coerce the people into selling Par’oh their land, justifying a permanent 20% tax on their harvests. Along the way, 47;21, the Torah notes that he transferred the people to cities. Rashi says it wasn’t to cities, it was from city to city, to remind the Egyptians that they no longer owned the land.

That doesn’t explain why the Torah thought it was worth telling us, so Rashi continues that Yosef did all this to decrease (or remove) his family’s sense of shame over being strangers and exiles, since they would all now be exiles, having been moved from city to city.

I have two issues with the Rashi. First, it’s not clear it worked since, when we meet them again in Shmot (hundreds of years later, to be sure), the Jews are seen as strangers, and other Egyptians are not. But even if it had worked, it’s a radical move—forcing masses of people to move from one city to another, all in the name of making one’s own family a little more comfortable. Rashi doesn’t seem to have seen it as a problem, one of many examples where ideas of morality that we take for granted were seen radically differently by great men of our past.

Rashi doesn’t elaborate. He might, for example, have felt that the Egyptians were so evil their concerns didn’t matter.  Whatever he meant, it challenges us to realize that we sometimes assume the moral necessity of views that Rashi, easily in the top five greats of post-Talmudic literature, saw differently. It’s a reminder that we should be careful to distinguish between how we currently understand morality—which may be the best way to see morality in our times and places– and what is the necessary timeless and universal morality.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.