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The following is based on a question I wrote in the margin of my chumash about ten years ago.

In Yehuda's speech to the Egyptian viceroy (Yosef in disguise) at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash, he says (Genesis 44:22) regarding their youngest brother Binyamin:

וַנֹּאמֶר אֶל אֲדֹנִי לֹא יוּכַל הַנַּעַר לַעֲזֹב אֶת אָבִיו וְעָזַב אֶת אָבִיו וָמֵת

And we said to my lord, 'The boy cannot leave his father, for if he leaves his father, he will die.

Question 1) Is it true that the brothers had said that? In the Torah's account of Yosef's two previous conversations with his brothers (Gen. 42:9-20), in Parashat Miketz, there's no mention of the brothers making any objection. Likewise, in their account to Ya'akov of their first trip to Egypt (Gen. 42:30-34), they don't mention having raised any objection.

In Rashi's commentary on this verse (based on Targum Yonatan), he inteprets the last "he" as referring to Binyamin:

אם יעזוב את אביו דואגים אנו שמא ימות בדרך, שהרי אמו מתה בדרך

If he leaves his father, we are worried lest he die on the way, for his mother died on the way.

Question 2) Why interpret this "he" as referring to Binyamin and not to Ya'akov - that if Binyamin leaves his father, his father will die?

  • See Gen. 43:38, when Ya'akov forbade bringing Binyamin down as follows:

    וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יֵרֵד בְּנִי עִמָּכֶם כִּי אָחִיו מֵת וְהוּא לְבַדּוֹ נִשְׁאָר וּקְרָאָהוּ אָסוֹן בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכוּ בָהּ וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאוֹלָה

    But he (Jacob) said, "My son shall not go down with you, because his brother is dead, and he alone is left, and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave."

    It sounds like he's afraid that something will happen to Binyamin, but certain that the result of such would be a heartbroken death for himself. The certain language of "he will die" seems to me to fit more with the latter.

  • There is similar language later that Rashi interprets differently. In Gen. 44:31, Yehuda reiterates:

    וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי אֵין הַנַּעַר וָמֵת וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאֹלָה

    it will come to pass, when he sees that the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoary head of your servant, our father, in grief to the grave.

    There is a similarly ambiguous "he will die" here, but here, Rashi says that it refers to Ya'akov:

    אביו מצרתו

    His father will die because of his calamity [of the loss of his son].

    Why does Rashi intepret this ambiguity the way I would have expected, but not the previous one?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Perhaps it's also because in v. 22, the phrasing "he cannot leave his father" seems to suggest that the concern is more about Binyamin's potential fate than Yaakov's. If the meaning is that Yaakov might die from grief, then we might have expected Yehudah to word it differently: "our father cannot allow him to leave..." - and then Yaakov's potential death would flow naturally from that.

Whereas in v. 31, in the context of Yaakov seeing that Binyamin is gone, it follows naturally that "he will die" is referring to Yaakov.

[Although there is a homiletic explanation - whose source I don't recall - that it refers to Binyamin: Yaakov will mistakenly conclude that Binyamin is dead, and this will actually lead to Binyamin's death, since even the unwitting statement of a tzaddik can have such an effect, as in the episode (Kesubos 62b) regarding R' Yannai and his son-in-law R' Yehudah.]

As for the fact that this objection isn't recorded earlier in the Torah - that's not a big deal. Neither is Yosef's query (which Yehudah cites in v. 19), "Have you a brother or a father?" It's common for the Torah to omit details in one place and record them only where they're more relevant.

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A suggestion:

The first instance of purported death comes in the context of Y'huda's hagasha (approach) to Yosef. The Midrash (Raba 93:6) understands this hagasha to be a strategic one. It sets up two possible explanations of Y'huda's strategy - either to appease the Egyptian viceroy or to threaten him into submission. The continuation of the Midrash, in quoting the descriptions of this scene by several tana'im, leans heavily toward the threatening idea rather than pacification. Importantly, Rash"i here bases himself on this string of midrashim, sometimes even quoting directly.

The threat only works if the one in danger is Binyamin for the following reason: Y'huda makes clear to Yosef that just as Egypt has a king who calls the shots, his family has a patriarch who wields similar authority (Ya'akov). Citing past instances in which members of their family had done violent justice on others who endangered family members, Y'huda strongly suggests that similar justice could be meted out on Yosef and Egypt should anything bad happen to Binyamin, thereby forcing Ya'akov to act harshly.

Perhaps in the context of the initial hagasha, Binyamin's death is invoked not for its sympathetic (or accurate) value but as an indirect fear-inducer. When a similar indication of potential death is made later on with the same ambiguity and nothing pushing it out of its most simple interpretation, Rash"i (and perhaps the midrashim) explain it exactly that simple way - that the one in danger is Ya'akov.

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Doesn't the threat of retribution lose some credibility when he later mentions the expectation that the alleged kingpin Ya'akov will die himself if anything happens to his beloved son? – Isaac Moses Dec 28 '09 at 4:18

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