Sunday, January 08, 2006

parshat Vayigash: The Ambiguity of וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו וָמֵת

In the fifth verse of parshat Vayigash, Yehuda relates to Yosef {Bereishit 44:22}:
כב וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, לֹא-יוּכַל הַנַּעַר, לַעֲזֹב אֶת-אָבִיו: וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו, וָמֵת. 22 And we said unto my lord: The lad cannot leave his father; for if he should leave his father, [he] would die.
([My emendation] to preserve the ambiguity. The JPS translation is actually: "for if he should leave his father, his father would die.")

On this pasuk, Ibn Ezra wonders aloud why Issi ben Yehuda did not list these among the five miqra`ot she`ein lahem hekhreia' - verses with unresolvable ambiguity.

The ambiguity here is one of coindexation. We could render this:
[The lad]i cannot leave [his father]j; for if [he]i should leave [his father]j, [he]i would die.
in which case the last [he] is coindexed with [the lad] - that is, Binyamin.

Alternatively, we could render this:
[The lad]i cannot leave [his father]j; for if [he]i should leave [his father]j, [he]j would die.
in which case the last he is coindexed with [his father] - that is, Yaakov.

So Yehuda is either claiming that Binyamin or Yaakov would die were Binyamin to leave his father. Another example of unresolvable ambiguity given by Ibn Ezra here is in Rut 4:8:
ח וַיֹּאמֶר הַגֹּאֵל לְבֹעַז, קְנֵה-לָךְ; וַיִּשְׁלֹף, נַעֲלוֹ. 8 So the near kinsman said unto Boaz: 'Buy it for thyself.' And he drew off his shoe.
Where the drawing off of the shoe could be an action of the "near kinsman" or a reaction of Boaz - that is, [he] and [his] could either be coindexed with [near kinsman] or with [Boaz], and the context is not sufficient to disambiguate.

One's immediate reaction to this is that this is quite unlike Issi ben Yehuda's five. Here are the five, together with Rashi's explanation of them, on Yoma 52b:

What we can note of Issi ben Yehuda's five is that in each the ambiguity is of the same type. The words of the pasuk are:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p
which form two distinct phrases. There is a middle word, say, g, which might be part of the first phrase or part of the second phrase. That is, either
[a b c d e f g] [h i j k l m n o p]
[a b c d e f] [g h i j k l m n o p]
Thus, the ambiguity is one where to make a pause, and to which of two phrases the middle word belongs. The ambiguity of meaning follows from the ambiguity of to which phrase the middle word belongs.

In contrast, Ibn Ezra's two examples of ambiguity are merely ambiguities of coindexation. One might argue that one could construct:

[וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו] [וָמֵת]


[null][וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו וָמֵת]

but this is somewhat artificial. Ibn Ezra has been answered.

After this occurred to me, I checked out Avi Ezer. Avi Ezer, an always-frum supercommentary on Ibn Ezra, asks how Ibn Ezra could be so chutzpahdik to challenge Chazal like this, asking how come Issi ben Yehuda didn't include these examples. His answer is that Ibn Ezra was not challenging Chazal, but rather speaking benichuta, explaining why Chazal did not include this verse in the miqra`ot she`ein lahem hekhreia' . The verse in Rut is an answer. Ibn Ezra is distinguishing between two types of ambiguity - between one of where to break, and one of ambiguity of coindexation - and to this end, cites the verse in Rut as another example of ambiguity of coindexation.

I certainly agree to Avi Ezer's explanation of why the verse in Vayigash and the verse in Rut should not be included in the number. And while Avi Ezer's question is sparked by a certain attitude and approach to Ibn Ezra (which causes him in another location to claim that certain words were written not by Ibn Ezra but a mistaken student), his explanation of Ibn Ezra's words here may very well be true - I think they read in better with Ibn Ezra's words than my (and Avi Ezer's) initial reading. In this case, Ibn Ezra is also aware of the distinction between these two types of ambiguity, a distinction he should be aware of.

Still, I would not totally discount the idea that Ibn Ezra wants to add these two verses to Issi ben Yehuda's five. After all, Ibn Ezra has a very strict definition of peshat - peshat is the point in the center of the circle, derash is the area of the circle, the words of the geonim form the circumference of the circle, and the words of Christian exegetes are entirely outside the circle. Since peshat is a point in the center, there should be one concrete meaning which is peshat (as opposed to derash, of which there may be several). Ambiguity, particularly unresolvable ambiguity, in peshat is not desired, and so we would expect it to be restricted to relatively few examples. This is how I read Ibn Ezra - that he was adding these two verses to the relatively small set.

Perhaps in a later post I will return to consider each of Issi ben Yehuda's five, and show how the trup does or does not decide on one specific reading. For now, let us consider the ambiguity of the current verse, and the phrase וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו וָמֵת.

Recall, this is Yehuda's retelling of the incident, but this objection of וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו וָמֵת was not mentioned at all in the initial narrative. Thus, we cannot refer to the initial narrative to disambiguate this statement of Yehuda.

Rashi (and I think also Tg. Yonatan) decides in favor of וָמֵת referring to Binyamin. Why should we think it is Binyamin?

Firstly, because that seems the most straighforward reading, syntactically speaking. If I write "If he does this he'll die" the most obvious reading has the same actor in the condition as in the result. That [his father] is mentioned as the object in the condition raises the possibility that [his father] is the same as the actor in the result, but the more expected reading maintains the same actor in both. Add to this that Hebrew is a pro-drop language, and so [he] is not explicit in either, and I would think you would surely wish to maintain consistency of actor.

Secondly, there is good reason to think that Yehuda meant that Binyamin would die if he left his father. Two pesukim earlier, we read:

כ וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, יֶשׁ-לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן, וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן; וְאָחִיו מֵת, וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ. 20 And we said unto my lord: We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him.

Note the stress on describing Binyamin as a yeled zekunim, "a child of his old age," and then returning and stressing that he is katan, "a little one."

Similarly, in the current verse, Binyamin is described as young - לֹא-יוּכַל הַנַּעַר, לַעֲזֹב אֶת-אָבִיו. He is a naar.

Furthermore, the words לֹא-יוּכַל הַנַּעַר are best understood as referring to Binyamin's inability, rather than his father's inability. The youth is not capable of leaving his father to travel to Egypt, for the physical stress of leaving his father together with the hardship of the journey might well kill him.

What this immediately calls to mind is the exchange between Yaakov and Esav. Esav wishes Yaakov to join his at Seir, but Yaakov excuses himself, saying that the youth of his children and animals precluded such a (speedy) journey. Bereishit 33:12-14:
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, נִסְעָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְאֵלְכָה, לְנֶגְדֶּךָ. 12 And he said: 'Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.'
יג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲדֹנִי יֹדֵעַ כִּי-הַיְלָדִים רַכִּים, וְהַצֹּאן וְהַבָּקָר, עָלוֹת עָלָי; וּדְפָקוּם יוֹם אֶחָד, וָמֵתוּ כָּל-הַצֹּאן. 13 And he said unto him: 'My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and that the flocks and herds giving suck are a care to me; and if they overdrive them one day, all the flocks will die.
יד יַעֲבָר-נָא אֲדֹנִי, לִפְנֵי עַבְדּוֹ; וַאֲנִי אֶתְנָהֲלָה לְאִטִּי, לְרֶגֶל הַמְּלָאכָה אֲשֶׁר-לְפָנַי וּלְרֶגֶל הַיְלָדִים, עַד אֲשֶׁר-אָבֹא אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, שֵׂעִירָה. 14 Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant; and I will journey on gently, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come unto my lord unto Seir.'
On the other hand, why should we think it is Yaakov?

Firstly, the traditional understanding of this, and several other parts of Bereishit, would have Binyamin be at least 23 at this time (if he was born just before Yosef was sold), with 10 children. We would expect him to survive a journey. (Of course, the references to him as much younger, and several other items, lead me to make Binyamin much younger than this. I have referred to this in several other posts, but perhaps I will return to make an all-encompassing post explaining how everything fits together.)

Secondly, while the peskim do refer to Binyamin's youth, they also refer to the father-son connection. Two pesukim earlier, we read:

כ וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, יֶשׁ-לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן, וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן; וְאָחִיו מֵת, וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ. 20 And we said unto my lord: We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him.
Note that stress is placed on the special relationship. He is the child of his father's old age. And he is the only one from that mother, such that his father truly really loves him. (This stress is obviously also there to make the connection to Yosef's connection with his father.)

Thirdly, Yaakov's reaction, as is related by Yehuda, is that if something bad happens to Binyamin, Yaakov will die:
כט וּלְקַחְתֶּם גַּם-אֶת-זֶה מֵעִם פָּנַי, וְקָרָהוּ אָסוֹן--וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת-שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָה, שְׁאֹלָה 29 and if ye take this one also from me, and harm befall him, ye will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.
ל וְעַתָּה, כְּבֹאִי אֶל-עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי, וְהַנַּעַר, אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ. 30 Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his soul is bound up with the lad's soul;
One might easily link וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ with וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו וָמֵת.

However, this is a different excuse. This is a reason Yosef should not enslave Binyamin, not a reason not to bring him to Egypt - for Binyamin is already in Egypt. And if Yehuda already claimed this in the past, without success (and presumably without ill-effect to Yaakov), why should he think the same reason would work again later.

I would say that there is enough cause to say that Yehuda's excuses are varied. First he claimed danger to the boy, based on the boy's extreme youth. This parallels Yaakov's excuse to Esav. This reading makes the most sense locally. Now, in explaining why not detain Binyamin, he adds extra detail about how Yaakov protested, saying that וּלְקַחְתֶּם גַּם-אֶת-זֶה מֵעִם פָּנַי, וְקָרָהוּ אָסוֹן--וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת-שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָה, שְׁאֹלָה. It is necessary to introduce the fact that Yaakov said this because now (and not earlier) it is in fact relevant. In the later excuse, the reason not to detain Binyamin is danger to Yaakov. Thus, I would side with Rashi. And this is another reason why the verse should not be considered one of Issi ben Yehuda's five.


rashman said...

Why didn't you mention that the Ramban and Sforno also defends Rashi's pshat. BUT that the Rashbam actually says like the Ibn Ezra!

joshwaxman said...

In general, nowadays I only try to mention meforshim where they add something that hasn't been added already by others. Rashi was cited because he is the standard. Ibn Ezra was cited because he feels it is ambiguous, and brought up the entire issue of Issi ben Yehuda's five. The others may agree or disagree, but a comprehensive list of how different meforshim take sides in this dispute was not what I wished to address.

Abba said...

Fascinatingly (Rishonim generally try to disambiguate syntax, by lexical or contextual argument), Rabbeinu Bachyei here suggests BOTH possibilities as . . . deliberate multivalence or ambiguity on the part of Yehudah: Yehudah is here trying to reinforce and play on both senses of “VeNafsho Keshurah BeNafsho” by saying “VaMeis” that could refer to EITHER Binyamin or Yaakov. (Note also the double sense of “Naar” as “Yeled” or “slave”.

Nachman Levine


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