Why does Jacob resolve to make the difficult journey to Egypt?
By SHLOMO RISKIN
One of the most poignant scenes in the Bible is the heartfelt and tear-filled reunion - after 22 years - of an old grieving father Jacob/Israel and his long-lost son Joseph. But almost equally emotional is the moment of discovery, when the brothers return from Egypt with the mind-boggling report that Joseph is alive: "And they told him, saying, 'Joseph is still alive; he is the ruler of the entire Land of Egypt.' And [Jacob's] heart became numb, for he could not believe them. Then they spoke all the words that Joseph had told them. When he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob was revived" (Gen. 45:25 -27).
Permit me to raise a number of questions. First, what was there about the wagons which caused Jacob's faint heart to revive and enabled him to accept his sons' report? Secondly, the anonymous "arranger" of the various sections or stops (aliyot) in this biblical reading (which is divided into seven portions) saw fit to conclude the fourth section with verse 27 cited above, and begin the fifth with verse 28: "And Israel said, 'There is much! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.'" This last verse is obviously the result of Jacob's newfound vigor. Ought this verse not be part of the preceding verse? Why begin a new portion (aliya) specifically in the middle of Jacob's reaction?
And finally, why does Jacob agree to undertake the difficult journey to Egypt? Would it not have been more logical - and proper - for the young son to visit the elderly father?
I once heard in the name of the British Dayan Golditch a question which provides the clue to answer all three questions. Imagine a situation in which your son leaves home for university but never shows up there. You are at your wits' end, not knowing what to think, since you haven't heard from him in 10 years and no "missing persons" office can come up with even a clue.
Suddenly, out of the blue, your son contacts you. What would make your father's heart rejoice more - if he sends you plane tickets to his home in Los Angeles (where he is an assistant professor of biology), or if he asks when it would be best for him to come for a visit?
After a little thought, declared Dayan Golditch, the preferred contact would be tickets for you. Then you could see the environment in which your son lives, be assured that he is keeping a kosher kitchen (or he wouldn't have invited you), and you could check out his marital status or at least his marital prospects. If he comes to you for the Sabbath or even Pessah, you'll know very little about where he's really at; anyone can wear a kippa and play back childhood songs for a day or even a week. Hence, when Joseph sends wagons to bring his father to Egypt, Jacob is confident that his beloved son hasn't wandered too far from the mission of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, "and the spirit of their father Jacob was revived."
But then, after Jacob's initial joy at having discovered that his beloved Joseph was indeed alive, he begins to think back to the unthinkable and question the unquestionable: How did his sons find a bloodied stained tunic to bring home, claiming that a wild animal had killed Joseph? And how did Joseph get to Egypt? And so Jacob began to piece together the improbable tale of his sons' betrayal of their brother and deception of their father - a tale he could barely face.
Then his aged but agile mind turned to Joseph. "Why should I travel to him?" he thinks. After all, he was alive - and at least for these past years holding an exalted position in Egypt. Why didn't he at least contact his father and let me know of his good fortune? No, he's a mere ingrate; he owes me the visit.
But then Jacob continues to ponder: so much has occurred in our family. The brothers were overcome with jealousy because I showed blind favoritism to my beloved wife's firstborn. I was at least partly responsible for whatever they tried to do to Joseph. And perhaps Joseph himself came to resent me and my favoritism, realizing that I had woefully mismanaged the family.
And even more to the point: Perhaps Joseph thought I was in on the plot to get rid of him. Hadn't I sent him on the dangerous errand to Shechem (Nablus) to look after the welfare of his hateful siblings, knowing full well what was likely to happen? He, good son that he was, even responded to my request with "hineni [here I am]," just as Abraham had responded to God. I sent him out after the last thing he heard from me was my displeasure at his grandiose dream (Gen. 37:10). He must have thought that just as Abraham banished Ishmael, and Isaac promised the blessing as well as the birthright to Jacob, in effect rejecting Esau, that I was casting Joseph out as well. No, if I begin to cast blame, I would only be deflecting it from the one who deserves it most, myself.
The arranger of the portions therefore introduces a pause to allow for all of Jacob's complex thoughts, giving the listener an opportunity to think along with him. And finally Jacob concludes: "There is much [at stake]. It is best that I remain silent, pretend not to have figured out the true villainy of the brothers, and turn a blind eye to Joseph's silence; 'My son Joseph is still alive; I must go and see him before I die.' After all, I love my beloved son; I need him, as I need all my sons. They are my future, and for the sake of that future, I must keep my peace and journey to Egypt."
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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