Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Vayechi #2: Why did Yaakov bow? And did Yaakov bow?

(edited from last year)

In parashat Vayechi, Yaakov calls Yosef to him (47:29) and makes Yosef swear to him that he will bury Yaakov in Israel, in not in Egypt. Yosef so swears. Then, we are told, Yaakov prostrates himself on the head of the bed (47:31). Then, (48:1): אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, after these events, Yosef is told his father is sick, and he goes to visit his father, accompanied by his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yaakov is told (48:2) that Yosef has come, he gathers his strength, and sits on the bed. He adopts Ephraim and Menashe as his own, asks who the kids are, is told they are Ephraim and Menashe, and blesses them.

There are many big issues here, but among them is the question why, in 47:31, Yaakov prostrates on the head of the bed.

This seems to be either a full prostration, or as some would have it, a mere nodding of the head. Assuming it is a full prostration, why? Let us examine the pasuk in more detail. Yaakov had just asked Yosef to bury him in Israel and Yosef agreed. The pasuk states:

וַיֹּאמֶר, הִשָּׁבְעָה לִי--וַיִּשָּׁבַע, לוֹ; וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַל-רֹאשׁ הַמִּטָּה
He said, swear to me, and he swore to him and Yisrael bowed down on the head of the bed. {My translation.}

The Va in וַיֹּאמֶר ,וַיִּשָּׁבַע and וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ is the vav hahipuch, and just serves to reverse imperfect (future to past). Yomer is future; VaYomer is past. It can also serve as an and in addition to reversing tense. That is why I translated "he said" rather than "and he said."

Why did Yaakov prostrate himself? The most obvious explanation would be gratitude at the favor being granted. This, of course, is problematic, since we would not expect a father to do that towards his son. This might be an anachronistic assumption, though.

Rashbam explains וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל as Yaakov bowing down to Yosef. Ibn Ezra at first concurs, saying he bowed down to Yosef, for he apportioned honor to kingship. (Yosef was the Vizier of Egypt.) Then, Ibn Ezra says, "VeHanachon BeAynay," what is correct in my view, is that he was giving praise to Hashem, and this is not like Avraham's bowing, for there is specifies "to the sons of Chet."
To explain Ibn Ezra, he is backtracking, saying that Yaakov did not bow down to Yosef, but rather to Hashem. Whenever bowing is stated without modification, Ibn Ezra would have it refer to bowing to Hashem. By Avraham, when he bought Mearat Hamachpela, he powed to the sons of Chet, but there the pasuk says explicitly to whom he bowed.

Note that even in Ibn Ezra's first explanation, where Yaakov bows to Yosef, he does so in honor of kingship, but not out of gratitude of favor.

My slight bone to pick with Ibn Ezra is that in 48:12, after Yaakov says he will bless Epharim and Menashe and praises Hashem for letting him see Yosef and Yosef's sons, Yosef bows (at leat it seems it is Yosef - see the pasuk). According to Ibn Ezra, this would be a bow to Hashem and not to Yaakov, but a bow to Yaakov feels more correct there. At any rate, Ibn Ezra makes no comment there about the target of the bow, so I know not what Ibn Ezra would say.

Even if the bow was for Yosef's malchut, Chazal do state that Yosef was punished for letting his father bow down to him and not objecting. However, Chazal are not monolithic in this regard. See Rashi on the pasuk, where he clearly reads the bow as directed towards Hashem.

I would like to propose an additional reading of the pasuk, and then will analyze some objections to that reading.

וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ means he lay prostrate and prone. Typically this happens on the ground. Here, the pasuk says it happened on the head of the bed. Why does prostration convey respect? I would say that on a basic level, it conveys powerlessness - lack of power to move, and total submission. Someone prostrate is vulnerable and powerless. Doing this to someone who has done you a favor shows the extent of your gratitude, and how you regard them in terms of having helped you.
Doing this to a king shows that he has power over you, and that you have no power comparative to him (kind of like submitting to the alpha male in a pack of wolves). Doing this towards Hashem conveys the same message - one of absolute subservience and lack of independent power.

But, prostration might indicate actual powerlessness. If someone really lacks power, because of illness, he might lie prostrate on a bed. I contend that this is what is happening to Yaakov. As a result, his prostrating on the "rosh hamita" has nothing to do with gratitude towards Yosef's oath, nor showing honor to kingship, nor thanking or honoring Hashem. Yaakov is ill, and has no power to move.

If so, how come there is a "va" connecting it? Yaakov asks Yosef to swear, Yosef swears, "Va" Yisrael prostrates himself on the rosh hamita. The answer is as I set it up beforehand. Va is the vav hahipuch - changing imperfect to perfect, but need not function also as a conjunctive "and."

The next pasuk states, (48:1)
וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה...
"It was after these matters, it was said to Yosef, Behold your father is ill."

I would contend that ""It was after these matters" serves to tell us that this next event happened after Yosef's oath, but does not serve to put Yaakov's prostration in the previous narrative. I would contend that Yaakov became ill and lay prostrate on his bed, so {after the previous events} Yosef was told that his father was ill, and so he went with Ephraim and Menashe to cisit his father.

Then, the next pasuk (48:2) tells us:
וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב--וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה.
"It was told to Yaakov, saying, Behold your son Yosef comes to you. Yisrael gathered (gained) strength and sat on the bed."

So, he needs to envigorate himself to be able to sit on the bed. Or, perhaps, news that Yosef was coming gave him the strength he needed to be able to sit on the bed. For, he was sick, and was until now laying prostrate on the bed.

The three psukim, in order with no breaks, tell us Yaakov was prostrate al rosh hamita, yosef was told his father was sick and came to visit him, Yaakov is told Yosef is coming, gains strength, and sits al hamita.

I think this is fairly clear, based on the juxtoposition and based on the parallel language. This parallel is the עַל-הַמִּטָּה in both psukim, and fact that both psukim in referring to Yaakov's actions call him yisrael, even though the referent to the forefather in the first part of the pasuk calls him Yaakov.

What are the objections to this? Well, first off, we are not supposed to be posek a pasuk that Moshe Rabeinu did not set off as a pasuk. My reading breaks off logically the end of 47:31 about the prostrating, and that might be considered a separate pasuk.

Secondly, and this is not really a big deal, it breaks a perek boundary. Logically, the end of 47:31 should be the beginning of the next perek. Of course, the perakim we have were ordered by Christians, and so we are not bound theologically in any way to conform to their ordering, and in fact we often do not. Also, since we are talking about a break mid-pasuk, part of the pasuk does in fact belong to the previous perek so no perek can lay full claim.

More problematic is the petucha (the bold peh in the chumash, break to the end of the line in the Torah). The petucha marking is right by the perek breaking. And, my suggestion should have the end of the previous pasuk after the petucha. We do indeed, in some instances, have a petucha breaking in the middle of a pasuk. But here, it does not do it. Petuchot and Setumot are very ancient forms of commentary. Ezra was metaken them, and it presents a similar problem to cutting off a pasuk Moshe did not break off. Perhaps we could answer, as above, that we would not put a petucha mid-pasuk, and then the pasuk has as much right to be before the petucha as after it.

On the other hand, we already seemed to have had dispute with Ezra's division once. In general, we separate pashiyot where Ezra put spacing. But, parashat Vayechi has no spacing separating it from the previous parasha. In fact, the Midrash Rabba gives three explanations what the fact that the parsha is stuma= closed- is supposed to mean, of which Rashi cites two and the Kli Yakar gives explanation to all three and explains why Rashi only cited two. In general, those attempting to explain Rashi or the midrash (see Siftei Chachamim and Kli Yakar) understand that Ezra knew this parasha division and left it Stuma to convey a message, so the midrash is an attempt to find cause for Ezra's deliberate omission of a break. But, it could also be easily read as a dispute between Ezra, who ordered the breaks, and Chazal, who ordered the parshiyot. The midrash would be built upon this dispute.

Another problem is the "וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה" in 48:1, but I already dealt with that. Another problem would be that later, in regard to Yosef, Vayishtachu denotes bowing, so it is strange to give it another import here. I think the closer psukim would take precedence in determining meaning, but it does give one pause.

At any rate, Yaakov was heartened to hear of Yosef's arrival, and he gained strength, or felt obligated to gather strength. For the second reading, see Rashi. I am leaning towards the first explanation - that Yosef's arrival granted him strength, especially based on his delight at seeing Yosef and Yosef's sons (see pasuk 48:11).

The lesson this can teach us we can see in very bold, wide strokes. Yosef's visit gave his ailing father strength, by giving him nachas. We too, should visit our parents or grandparents, if they are feeling ill, or even if they are feeling healthy, thereby giving them nachas by our mere presence, and thus grant them strength.

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