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Mordechai Silverstein

The Making of a Jewish Leader

The moment that Pharoah recognizes Yosef’s extraordinary capabilities, he showers him with both great authority and with a plethora of extraordinary titles. Among those honors one in particular stands out:

And Pharoah said to Yosef: After God has made know to you all of this, there is none as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and by your lips all my folk shall be guided. By the throne alone shall I be greater than you… And he had him ride in the chariot of his viceroy, and they call out before him Avrekh, setting him over all of the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:39-43)

The term “Avrekh”, which appears only once in the Tanakh (hapax legomenon), may derive from the Akkadian, abarakku, meaning steward of the temple or chief steward, but could also possibly mean: ‘make way’ (Von Rad), in a fashion similar to when Haman parades Mordechai through the streets in the book of Esther. (See Esther 6:9;11) In any case, the various attempts to discover its original meaning are as varied as there are Bible scholars.

The rabbinic sages had their own manner of etymological discovery, seeking out Hebrew origins for this loan word using midrashic methodology:

Rabbi Yehudah interpreted the verse: ‘And he had him to ride in the chariot of the viceroy, and they call out before him – Avrekh’ (Gen. 41:43). This refers to Joseph, who was a father (av) in wisdom and young (rakh) in years. Rabbi Yose ben Dormaskit said to him: Yehudah son of Rabbi, why do you distort Scripture for us? I call heaven and earth to witness for me that Abrekh means “I will make them bend their knees (birkayim)” for everyone had to come and go under his authority, as it is said: ‘And they set him over all of Egypt’ (Genesis 41:43). (Sifre Devarim 1, Finkelstein ed. p. 8)

In this midrash, we see two different methods of midrash interpretation. Rabbi Yehudah bases his interpretation on a midrashic method known as “notarikon”, namely, he takes the world “avrekh” and splits the words in two – “av” and “rakh”, seeing in Yosef,  a young advisor. Rabbi Yose ben Dormaskit, who to my mind, while interpreting midrashically, hones closer to the pshat or plain meaning, sought out a “Hebrew” origin for the word and found it in the root “bet resh kaf”, which has the meaning – “to bow down on one’s knees. He reinforces this definition with the end of the verse: ‘And they set him over all of Egypt.’ “Avrekh” is then understood to mean, someone to whom all are obliged to show obeisance.

The identification of Yosef with the term “Avrekh” and the qualities described in this midrash became an ideal in the rabbinic tradition. Yosef came to represent someone who is young, wise and respected by all. Interestingly, as a result of these associations, at some point in recent Jewish history, the term “Avrekh” came to be used to describe young, often recently married Torah students in the yeshiva world who are totally dedicated to Torah study.  )The earliest recorded usage, according to the historical dictionary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, was in the mid-18th century by Moshe Mendelsohn).

What is clear though is that Yosef became an aspirational model for Jewish youth who dedicate themselves to both Torah and leadership. May the Jewish people be blessed with future generations which combine the two.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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