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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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    Should this be split into two separate questions? – DonielF May 21 '17 at 22:29
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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.

  • 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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To address your first question, consider Genesis 43:7. There Judah tells Jacob that Joseph asked them if they have another brother. Yet if you look back at Genesis 42 when the brothers met with Joseph, there is no mention of Joseph asking such a question! As I mentioned in this answer, Ralbag argues that Joseph certainly did ask them and it just wasn't recorded in the Torah. Similarly, Ibn Kaspi in his commentary to that verse writes that there is no doubt that Joseph did ask them – though it isn't mentioned – and the proof is that we find that when Judah later spoke to Joseph he introduced many details that were not mentioned previously:

אין ספק שכן היה ואם לא נזכר זה לפנים והעד כמה פרטים חדשים שאמר יהודה ליוסף בפניו כאשר נגש אליו וזכור זה והקש על זה

Thus, your example of Judah claiming that they had told Joseph that Benjamin would die if separated from his father presumably falls into this category of details that did occur but were simply not mentioned at the time.

As for your second question, a number of commentaries indeed understand the reference in 44:22 to be to Jacob dying and not Benjamin, e.g. Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Bekhor Shor. Ramban, who was aware of this, offers the following critique:

פירש רבי אברהם ומת אביו ואם כן היה אומר לא יוכל אבינו לעזוב את בנו ועזב את בנו ומת או לא נוכל שיעזוב הנער את אביו כי לא יתלו החמלה על אביהם בנער כי הם יחזיקוהו כילד לא ידע בין טוב לרע אבל פירוש לא יוכל הנער לעזוב את אביו מפני נערותו והיותו ילד שעשועים בחיק אביו אשר אהבו ואם יעזבנו ויבא בדרך ימות הנער

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explained this to mean "and his father would die." But if so, Judah would have said: "Our father cannot leave his son, for if he should leave his son, he [the father] would die." Or he should have said, "We cannot bear that the lad leave the father," for they would not make the plea for compassion for their father dependent upon the lad, [saying, as the verse has it. 'The lad' cannot leave his father for if he should leave his father, he would die], since they considered him a child who did not know the difference between good and evil. [Therefore, if it be as Ibn Ezra says, i.e., that the concern in this verse is lest the father die, they would have said, "We cannot bear that the lad should leave his father," or "Our father cannot leave his son."] Rather, the meaning is: The lad cannot leave his father on account of his youth and his being the darling son in the lap of his father who loves him, and if he should leave him and come on the journey the lad would die. (Chavel translation)

Thus, we could simply say that Rashi agrees with Ramban's critique and therefore felt compelled to interpret the death in 44:22 as referring to Benjamin. In 44:31, however, where Ramban's linguistic concerns are not an issue, Rashi had no problem saying that the death there was a reference to Jacob.

We can perhaps address this even more directly by looking at Ibn Kaspi's commentary to 44:22. Like Rashi, he interprets the death as a reference to Benjamin, but he tells us that he does this precisely because of 44:31:

רמז לנער כי ומת השני שיזכור עוד רמז לאב כי יהודה החזיק בשני הטענות האלה כראוי לחכם

In other words, far from strengthening the question, the fact that 44:31 refers to Jacob's death is actually the proof that 44:22 refers to Benjamin. For Judah, being a wise man, would certainly have advanced two distinct arguments – one that Benjamin would die, and another that Jacob would die.

Thus again we could surmise that Rashi chose his interpretations for the same reason.

Lastly, we can suggest that 44:22 can actually refer to both Jacob and Benjamin, as R. Bachya alludes to in his commentary there:

ימות הנער בבואו בדרך מצד שהוא מעונג ורך ולא נסה שיבא ארח ברגליו ויכלול עוד מה שימות גם אביו מצער בנו ובא ללמד בזה כי חיי האב תלויים בחיי הנער וכן באר אחר כך כי מצד שנפש יעקב קשורה בנפש הנער אם אולי יקרה לו אסון לנער ימות גם אביו וזהו שאמר והיה כראותו כי אין הנער ומת

Thus, perhaps Rashi is simply pointing out how it could even refer to Benjamin.

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