Erica Brown

The Father Of Pharaoh

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:19 p.m.
Torah reading: Leviticus 12:1-13:59;
Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
Havdalah: 5:23 p.m.

In this week’s Torah reading, Joseph brings his family down to Egypt to live in the land of Goshen and enjoy relief from the famine in Canaan. He tells his brothers to send a personal invitation to his father. However, the invitation is marked by irony, a telling word play and a sad statement of family distance.

Joseph tells his brothers not to feel guilty for potentially endangering him in the past [Genesis 45:8-9]: “It was not you who sent me here but God and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay…’”

Joseph, inflated with the control that he exerts over Egypt, calls himself father to Pharaoh and then fathers his own father by bidding him to come down and live beside him. Providing sustenance is usually the job of a father, not a son. Joseph inverts the typical roles and also assumes a more controlling persona. Naturally, this was for Jacob’s benefit, but the invitation — we suspect — conveys a little too much confidence. Rather than beg to see his father’s face or express his longing for a reunion, he wants the invitation to open with a statement about his new station in life.

On one level, Joseph’s being a “lord of Egypt” would surely be a comfort to a tribal head who had fallen on hard times. It indicates a rehabilitation of the family name and the family honor. Joseph would certainly want to convey this to his father. But why make it the first words from a messenger’s mouth? Why not begin with words of placation and peace and then offer assurance? Genesis 45:13 hints that there is something more going on than simple solace: “And you must tell my father everything about my high station in Egypt and all that you have seen and bring my father here with speed.”

Joseph assumes that his father, an elderly man —130 by his own reckoning [Gen. 47:9] — would happily move to a foreign country to live out his last years far from home. Twice do we read of the haste with which he is to be moved, and yet it hardly matches the abilities of a man of Jacob’s seniority. R. Ovadiah Seforno, the 16th-century Italian commentator, stresses a change from Genesis 45:9 to 45:13. In the first verse, the messenger is to convey Joseph’s success so that Jacob may hear it. In the latter verse, Jacob is advised to hurry down so that he may see it for himself and experience joy.

As it turns out this is not exactly what we call, in the vernacular, “yiddishe nachas.” Jacob, in fact, is not happy to be there and says as much to Pharaoh. It seems an embarrassment and a religious weakness to live out one’s last years away from one’s ancestral home. Before he dies, Jacob makes Joseph promise that his burial would be in the Land of Israel, holding firm to his commitment in death if not in life.

Joseph also wants to communicate in the strongest of terms how important he is in Egypt. He emphasizes several times that his father should know of his station and position. Nowhere in the message is there a plea to see his father or a much needed apology for not having made contact with his father for thirteen impossibly long years.

Joseph’s behavior reflects a common mistake that many children, particularly adult children, make in relation to their parents. They think that their personal achievements as individuals will compensate for a missing relationship. Waiting for a stamp of approval, they hold up with an almost child-like anticipation of reward, a long list of accomplishments to their parents or parent. The one thing they neglect to mention is what has long gone unsaid: I missed you. I’m sorry. I love you.

Joseph mentioned only the trajectory of his remarkable career. What he never realized — because he neither asked nor contacted his father for the duration of his stay in Egypt — is his father’s descent since he left the household. From the moment Jacob thinks his beloved son had been killed, he went into profound mourning. He frequently mentioned his grey hair and his impending death. It is no wonder that he complains to Pharaoh that his years have been bitter and few. Joseph’s success in Egypt, while very impressive to most, may not have made the mark on Jacob that Joseph expected. What did impress him was that Joseph was still alive and that he would soon see him. “My son Joseph is alive! I must see him before I die!”

Jacob does rush to see his son. It is the haste of a parent that should have been pre-empted by the love and concern of a son. Jacob’s love stayed steady. He did not go down to Egypt to see the “father of Pharaoh” but went to be, once again, the “father of Joseph.”

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).