Interpretation without emoticons
Vayigash | Genesis 44:18-47:27
Where would we be without emoticons, those combinations of letters and symbols indicating a smile, a frown, a wink, or a stuck-out tongue that tell the readers of our electronic communications how to interpret our words? More than one relationship has been damaged when the recipient of a message didn’t realize it was meant as a joke.
This problem didn’t begin with the Internet age. Any written text is subject to interpretation, as we find in this week’s parsha.
Last week’s Torah reading concluded with a cliff-hanger. When Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food, Joseph recognizes them but they don’t recognize him. Joseph decides to test them. He insists that when they next come to buy food, they must bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, and then Joseph arranges to frame Benjamin for theft. As the parsha ends, Joseph tells his brothers they may return home, but he will keep the thief as his slave.
Vayigash begins as Yehuda offers himself as a substitute, pleading with Joseph to allow Benjamin to return home so that their father’s heart will not be broken. Yehuda’s impassioned speech convinces Joseph to reveal his identity and reconcile with his brothers.
What did Yehuda say that moved Joseph? Yehuda begins, “Please, my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, ki hamocha k’faro — for you are like Pharaoh.”
Rashi tells us that the plain meaning of this phrase is, “In my sight you are as important as the king,” words meant to show honor and respect. But Rashi also points out that Midrash B’reishit Rabbah offers additional possibilities.
It was a threat; Yehuda said, let him go, or you will be like that [earlier] Pharaoh who was stricken with leprosy when he took my great-grandmother Sarah into his harem for just one night.
Or Yehuda was showing contempt. Just as Pharaoh decrees but does not fulfill promises, so too are you undependable. You said, bring your brother so that I may set eyes on him. Is this what you meant by those words?
Regarding this latter interpretation, Rabbi Aaron Lewin of Reisha, Poland, wrote in his 1928 book HaDrash v’HaIyun:
“This seems strange: Here Judah is standing in front of the ruler and pleading for mercy. Is that, then, the way to talk to him? Rather, this is what Judah said: The king issues decrees that apply to everyone in the kingdom, but he himself has the right to violate them. His primary right is to pardon criminals, because according to the letter of the law they may not be freed. You, Joseph, also have that right, for you freed us even though, under Egyptian law, if a theft is found in the hands of one of a group of 10 men, all are imprisoned. That being the case, I beg of you to pardon Benjamin as well.”
Without Yehuda’s tone of voice or body language, we can’t be sure what he meant. However, I’d like to think that when Yehuda spoke to Joseph he kept his voice and his stance completely neutral, as if to say, “By your response, by the way you decide to treat this boy, you will choose — for good or ill — the way in which you are like Pharaoh.”