Peace in Jacob’s Household? Outcry and Remorse

Peace in Jacob’s Household? Outcry and Remorse

By Rafi Vaknin*

Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem.  Come, I will send you to them.”  He answered, “I am ready.”  And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.”  So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.  (Gen. 37:13-14)

Such was the mission on which Jacob sent Joseph,[1] a mission that would be a turning point in his life.  He was sent out from a pampered existence in his father’s house to a world of trials and tribulations.  Henceforth his life would become a long chain of suffering—thirteen years, beginning with one pit (Gen. 37:24) and ending with another, the prison dungeon (Gen. 39:20).

One wonders greatly at Jacob’s actions.  After all, we just read how his brothers “hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4), and how they “hated him even more” (Gen. 37:5) and “hated him even more” (Gen. 37:8), and lastly, “so his brothers were wrought up at him” (Gen. 37:11)?  Against this setting of foul relations colored by hate and envy, the farthest one could have from peace and harmony, Jacob tells him, “Go and see how your brothers are,” in Hebrew, shlom aheikha, the peaceful well-being of your brothers.  Where was peace?  Where brotherly relations?[2]  Had Jacob not witnessed, was he not aware of what had been taking place between Joseph and his brothers?[3]

Ostensibly, Joseph’s behavior should make us wonder, too.  How could he have undertaken this mission, knowing his brothers’ hatred and jealousy at first hand?!  Joseph, however, was compelled by his father’s command.  Thus, according to the midrash, are we to understand his response, “I am ready.”  “He knew that his brothers hated him, but he did not want to go against his father’s word,”[4] and “he paid him respect, as a son in awe of his father.”[5]  Or as Nahmanides put it, “He suffered everything for the sake of honoring his father.”[6]  In last week’s parashah we read about Jacob himself having been in a similar situation, when his mother commanded him to do something difficult and dangerous—to take, by way of deception, the blessing his father meant for his brother (Gen. 27:6-17).  Indeed, he did attempt to get out of doing his mother’s behest, but unsuccessfully, and so he went to do what he had been commanded, “under coercion, with bent head, and crying.”[7]  One wonders how Jacob could have blotted out this memory and gone and put his son to a similar trial.

Moreover, I would like to argue that Jacob should have caught the intimation in Joseph’s response, but he failed to.  Joseph, upon hearing the mission, answered tersely, “I am ready.”  Nehamah Leibowitz notes that this statement of “I am ready” (Heb. hineini) is different from all other instances of hineini in the Torah; all other responses of hineini come immediately after the person’s name is called, but here he had already heard what was being asked of him.[8]  Perhaps it was with reference to such an understanding that Rabbi Johanan said:  “Sometimes the term ‘Yes’ means ‘No’ and ‘No’ means ‘Yes’ [as when spoken ironically]” (Bava Kamma 93a).  Or as Nahmanides said, in another context, “He did not understand the hidden significance but followed that which was revealed.”[9]  Later, when Jacob saw the striped tunic dipped in blood (Gen. 37:31-34), he came to understand what he had not understood thus far.  Thus, the Sages said:  “Our patriarch would recall these things, and his insides would be torn apart; for I know that your brothers hate you and that you would say ‘I am ready.’”[10]

It seems to me that Joseph kept the matter of this bitter mission in his heart, an unclosed account with his father, all those twenty-two years during which he did not see him, and only at the end of those years did he settle accounts with him:

And they told him, “Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”  His heart went numb, for he did not believe them.  But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons [Heb. agalot] that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived.  (Gen. 45:26-27)

It was not Pharaoh’s wagons [Heb. agalot] that Jacob saw, but Joseph’s heifers (eglot).  And what were these wagons/heifers?  “He [Joseph] said to them [his brothers]:  If he believes you, ‘tis well.  But if not, say to him:  When I left you, was I not studying with you the chapter of the beheaded heifer [eglah arufah].  Hence it says, ‘When he saw the agalot.’”[11]

As we recall, the passage dealing with the beheaded heifer stipulates that when a corpse is found in a field, and it is not known who killed the person, then the elders of the city closest to the victim take a heifer and break its neck in the riverbed and say:  “Our hands did not shed this blood.”  Is it conceivable that the elders, judges, could have shed blood?!  Rather, they were avowing [not even to have been the indirect cause of his death]:  “We never saw him and [knowingly] let him depart without food or escort [if we had seen him we would not have let him depart without these].”[12]

An aggadic tradition cited in the Zohar says that this was precisely the message that Joseph sent to his father Jacob by means of those same wagons.  This was a message of reproach, although concealed in accordance with the commandment that a son be respectful of his father, yet nevertheless a stern rebuke:

Joseph intimated something to Jacob regarding the beheaded heifer…Note that Joseph, when he parted from his father, was sent off without escort and without food, and then there transpired such as transpired.  And when Jacob said, “Joseph was surely torn by a beast,” he said:  I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol, for it was I who caused this to happen, for I knew that his brothers hated him yet I sent him (to them).  Thus (Joseph) was intimating to him.[13]

The wound which that wretched mission opened in Joseph’s soul continued to fester all the twenty-two years that he did not see his father, and perhaps this accounts for his not sending his father a sign of life all those years.[14]  Only now, after the prolonged process of refining and purifying through which he put himself and his brothers, too, in a lengthy saga of acting like a stranger to them and abusing them—the image of his father always remaining before his eyes—only now could he stand and cry out from the inner chambers of his heart:  “Father, how could you have done this to me?  How could you have sent me off on a mission that would cause me such calamity, knowing how they hated me?”  Through this outcry, symbolized by the agalot/eglot that he sent his father, he settled accounts with him.

What about Jacob?  The midrash cited above reveals the thoughts of remorse about the past that were in his consciousness regarding the unhappy mission on which he had sent Joseph.  It appears that Jacob’s soul, too, knew no repose all those years, and only at the end, after seeing the agalot/eglot and being told that his son Joseph was still alive, only then “the spirit of their father Jacob revived” (Gen. 45:27).  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has commented, “then he rose out of the twenty years state of sorrow and grief, then he felt the Spirit of G‑d upon him again, and therefore at once he is again called Israel, whereas up till now…he was always referred to as Jacob.”[15]  Only now do we read: “‘Enough!’ said Israel.  ‘My son Joseph is still alive!  I must go and see him before I die’” (Gen. 45:28).  With this celebratory proclamation of Jacob’s we come full circle, and the rupture is finally healed.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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* Professor Rafi Vaknin, lecturer at Herzog College, Jerusalem.  This article is dedicated to the blessed memory of my infant granddaughter, Naomi. Originally published in Hebrew in 2016. This translation was not reviewed by the author.

[1] Nehamah Leibowitz devotes two chapters to this mission, from its beginning—“So he sent him from the valley of Hebron” (Gen. 37:14)—to its end—“So, it was not you who sent me here, but G‑d” (Gen. 45:8). 

[2] Not only could they not speak a friendly word to him, as Rashi explains, but they “also could not stand for him to speak to them a friendly word,” according to the commentary of Ha-Netziv.

[3] Note that the substance of the mission is stated in verse 14; the previous verse is only a statement of intent on the part of Jacob.  Perhaps this hints at Jacob having some misgivings and hesitation about sending his son to a place of danger.  The story of this mission calls to mind the story of another mission, that of Jesse sending his son David to his brothers in the battlefield (I Sam. 17:17-29) and ordering him to “find out how your brothers are” (I Sam. 17:18).  Indeed, there are many similarities between the two stories, but also many differences.  Jesse saw with his eyes (and not in a dream) that David had been chosen from among all his brothers to be anointed king by the prophet, at the Lord’s behest, and he sent him to the battlefield not only to find out how his brothers were faring, but also to gain some familiarity with affairs of state and to be in proximity to the king.

[4] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah, Tractate de-Va-Yehi, s.v. va-yikah Moshe,” (in the Horowitz-Rabin edition, p. 79, the sentence appears as in the variants according to the printed edition; Ish-Shalom ed, 24b).

[5] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck) 84.13.

[6] In his commentary on verse 15.

[7] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck) 65.14.

[8] Loc. cit., pp. 307, 339.  Also cf. Rabbi Mordecai Brauer, Pirkei Bereshit II, Alon Shevut 1999, p. 611.

[9] Nahmanides says this about Joseph, who did not rightly understand the words of the man who told him, “They have gone from here” (Gen. 37:17).

[10] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck) 84.13.  Parallel sources have a slightly different formulation:  “You knew that your brothers hate you.”  The formulation, “I know,” emphasizes even more Jacob’s remorseful thoughts concerning the mission.

[11] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck) 94.27.

[12] Rashi, loc. cit.

[13] Zohar, Va-Yigash 210b.

[14] Nahmanides, in his commentary on Genesis 42:9, asked, “How was it that he did not send even one letter to his father to let him know and comfort him?”  The question is also discussed at length by Rabbi Yoel ben-Nun and Rabbi Yaakov Medan.  Cf. Yoel ben-Nun, Pirkei ha-Avot:  Iyyunim be-Farshiyot ha-Avot be-Sefer Bereshit, Alon Shevut 2009, pp. 165-222.

[15] Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 45:27 (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, trans. Dr. Isaac Levy, p. 626).

Last modified: 26/11/2017