Thursday, December 05, 2013

How could Yosef ask "Is my father still alive?" Yehuda had made it clear that Yaakov was alive!

The Torah Temimah presents two ways of understand Yosef's question, "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?" I like the first one as peshat and not just midrash. And at the end of the post, I give a novel interpretation of the utterance which looks forwards rather than backwards.

The first is based on the midrashic take, I think a famous one:

He wants to know what the connection is between "I am Yosef" and "Is my father still alive?" And further, they had pretty explicitly said that Yaakov was alive, so why is he asking?

The first approach is that this was said כמתמיה. The midrash understands Yosef's words as a Tochacha, a rebuke, to which the brothers are unable to answer.

Thus, Yehuda had said (Bereishit 44:31):

לא  וְהָיָה, כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי-אֵין הַנַּעַר--וָמֵת; וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת-שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ, בְּיָגוֹן--שְׁאֹלָה.31 it will come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die; and thy servants will bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave.

and in this way saying that a report of Binyamin's death would kill Yaakov. And Yosef was very affected by this (Bereishit 45:1-2) and sent everyone out, and then proclaimed to them (45:3):
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.3 And Joseph said unto his brethren: 'I am Joseph; doth my father yet live?' And his brethren could not answer him; for they were affrighted at his presence.
His brothers being unable to answer him כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו would mean that they had no answer to his rebuke.

The Torah Temimah puts it as follows, as a rhetorical question (a):
"Is there still in him strength to bear a burden after his suffering {?} and pain from my loss, such that he is still alive?"
And with this was the implicit accusation, and the calling to their mind all that Yosef's brothers had done to him. This also explains how it connects to "I am Yosef". All this is an accusation.

Another way I might cast the tochacha is: (b) "Why are you thinking of my father's suffering at the loss now? You were callous about his suffering back then!" Another way: (c) "How can you present to me that he cannot bear the loss of a child? He was able to bear it back then when you caused me to be lost to him."

I like this rhetorical approach. And though it is recorded in a midrash, that midrash is tapping in to a deep and plausible peshat reading of the text.

Perhaps one can find fault with some of the ways of spinning this tochacha. After all, the brothers in the past (e.g. Bereishit 45:27-29) had stressed the loss of Yosef, and that it was the loss of both sons of Rachel which would cumulatively add up to Yaakov's death in sorrow. But this would only be a rejection of (c), not (a) or (b).

But then he presents another explanation al derech hapeshat:

"And as peshat, one can interpret the intent of the question 'Is my father still alive?' is that after he saw that they lied to him regarding his existence, for they said that he died, and as Rashi said in the beginning of this parashah (pasuk 20) that they had a reason for doing so, he was no longer certain about what they said to him until now that their father was still alive. For perhaps they also had a reason [for lying] about this, perhaps in order to stir up mercy in Yosef regarding his old age, or some other reason. And therefore, now, when he made himself known, he asked about him [Yaakov] that they should tell him the truth."

Here is a my own explanation. Stop looking backwards, to Yehuda's mention of Yaakov saying X or Y, or of Yehuda's fear of Yaakov dying. You are supposed to look forwards, to Yaakov's reaction to the good news. Bereishit 45:28:

כח  וַיֹּאמֶר, יִשְׂרָאֵל, רַב עוֹד-יוֹסֵף בְּנִי, חָי; אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ, בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.28 And Israel said: 'It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die

Even if Yosef did not say it (pretend for a moment, for my rhetorical point), it would be fitting to have put these words in Yosef's mouth, HaOd Avi Chai. Because the literary point is the mutual excitement regarding the reunion. And so it matches Yaakov's statement of Rav, Od Yosef Chai.

Now know that Yosef did say it. And it has some meaning that presumably can be resolved with Yehuda's earlier statements which make clear that Yaakov was alive. But first, the resolution to that apparent conflict is irrelevant, and beside the point. And stress to much on this, and you will end up missing the point. And second, perhaps say that it was an excited rhetorical utterance to himself.

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