By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that the Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that whether readers agree with them or not they will provoke thought. We will now add some ideas by the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his biblical commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah), who raises penetrating questions and rational solutions that are generally traditional, and some ideas by the famed Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) who unlike the other two fills his commentary with derash, homiletical interpretations that others are unable to see in the plain meaning of the biblical text. The parenthetical statements are mine, making the presentation a quartet of different sounds. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 to 47:27).
1. In 45:1, Joseph becomes emotional and realizes that he should tell his brothers that he is Joseph. Why did he try to hide his emotions before? Ehrlich: Rulers believe they should show themselves as being better and more elevated than the people they rule and not display human emotions, which are interpreted by many men as faults, to their subjects.
2. Ehrlich mocks Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16b, that interpret 45:14, why Joseph fell upon his brother Benjamin’s shoulder and wept, and Benjamin did the same to him. They say that Joseph cried because he foresaw that the two temples that would be built on the tribal land of Benjamin would be destroyed and Benjamin, similarly, cried because he prophesied that the tabernacle that would be erected in Shiloh, in the land of Joseph’s tribe, would be destroyed. Why, Ehrlich laments, do people seek some kind of holiness even in a story of two brothers expressing feelings of love during a reunion after more than a two decade separation.
3. Baruch Epstein identifies that that the Talmud states that it derived its interpretation from the fact that 45:14 states that Joseph fell upon the shoulders (plural) of his brother Benjamin and cried, while Benjamin cried on Joseph’s shoulder (singular). He explains that Midrashim sometimes depict the temple as a neck, hence, here, neck equals temple. He also offers his own idea that two temples for Joseph and one tabernacle for Benjamin could be derived from the dual description of Joseph falling and crying, while Benjamin is portrayed as just crying. (Both deductions are weak proofs. The Bible uses the plural many times when the singular is intended and vice versa, and the rabbis do not interpret every time this frequent phenomenon occurs. Modern authors also would generally not repeat the phrase “fell upon the shoulders.” It is clearly implied for Benjamin after being stated for Joseph.)
4. The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16b, asks about 45:22: does it make sense that Joseph, who suffered slavery because his father gave him a coat and gave his brothers nothing would make the same mistake and hand his brother Benjamin five garments and 300 pieces of silver, while he only handed his other brothers one garment each and no silver? The Talmud only addresses the issue of the garments and states that Joseph was telling him that one of his descendants, Mordechai of the book of Esther, would wear five garments. Epstein offers a lengthy explanation where he shows that one could understand that Joseph treated the brothers equally. (But this is not in the Bible itself, which seems to say that Joseph, like most other people, didn’t learn from his past experience.)
5. (Why does Scripture state that God appeared to Jacob in a dream in 46:2? Sometimes the Torah explicitly states that the communication was a dream, as here, but sometimes it does not, Using Maimonides’ explanation that prophecy is a human activity, the use of a high level of intelligence and understanding, we can understand that all biblical communications were dreams or inspirations, but the Torah only sometimes identifies the experience explicitly as a dream.)
6. (From a narrative point of view, it is worth noting that Jacob has dramatic dreams three times before he undergoes a new experience, each dream is provoked by his fears. The first was when he left home to escape his brother Esau’s anger and feared what would happen to him in the new land. The second when he returned to Canaan and expected to encounter Esau. [The Bible does not say this was a dream, but Maimonides explains that it was.] And this time as he is about to enter Egypt.)
7. What is the significance of God assuring Jacob, as he was leaving Canaan and entering Egypt, that Joseph will close his eyes? Ehrlich: Jacob wanted to be buried in Canaan where his parents and grandparents were buried. He feared that if he died in Egypt, no one would be able to bring his body to Canaan for burial. By telling Jacob that Joseph would close his eyes when he died, God was assuring him that Joseph would still be alive when he died, and as a senior Egyptian official he would have the power to bring Jacob’s body home. Rashi derives the assurance of Jacob’s burial in Canaan from 46:4, “I will surely bring you back up.”
8. If one calculates the years of Judah’s marriage and the birth of his children, one will see that it is impossible for two children of Peretz, his grandchildren, to have been born when Jacob’s family went to Egypt, even though 46:12 states so. Ehrlich writes that we cannot rely on biblical chronology.
9. 46:15 states that Leah’s descendants numbered 33 people. Yet a count of the named descendants yields only 31. Ehrlich reminds readers that the Torah usually doesn’t mention female births unless the female has a role later in the Bible. Thus the missing two (or four if we ignore Peretz’s children) may have been females.
10. (46:27 states that 70 members of Jacob’s family accompanied him to Egypt, but 70 names are not mentioned. If one counts Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons, the total is only 69. One could rely on Ehrlich’s answer that the missing person was a woman. However it is unlikely that only one other female child was born to this large family. Rashi quotes the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 128 a,b, that 70 includes Yochebed, Moses’ Mother who was born just as the family entered Egypt. Epstein shows that Scripture frequently rounds up numbers, as when it states that the Israelites ate manna in the desert 40 years when they only did so for 39 years and eleven months. We can also note that the number 70 is symbolic and denotes a large number. Thus, for example, Scripture speaks of 70 nations when we know that there were many more.)
11. Jacob tells Pharaoh that he is 130 years old, but if we calculate the events in his life, we see he is 116. Why is there a 14 year difference? A Midrash states that although not mentioned in the Torah (and although it is anachronistic) we need to add the 14 years that Jacob spent learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber (son and grandson of Noah) because Jacob wanted to fortify himself in Torah learning before he encountered his uncle, the pagan Laban. Epstein asks, there is a tradition that Jacob was punished for the 22 years he was with Laban when he didn’t fulfill the obligation of honoring his father and mother. Epstein suggests that a child is not punished when he doesn’t honor his father and mother because he is learning in a Yeshiva. Rashi quotes an anachronistic view in a Midrash on 46:28 that Jacob sent his son Judah to Egypt to establish a Yeshiva there.
12. (Why is there no space between the portion of Vayigash and the next portion Vayechi? This is the only instance where there is no space between two biblical portions. Rashi and Midrashim offer two solutions: (1) this is when Jacob died and slavery began (2) Jacob wanted to reveal the time of redemption to his sons but he lost the power to prophesy. Baruch Epstein questions the solutions: this is not the place in the Bible where Jacob dies. He will continue to live to give blessings to his children and two of Joseph’s sons. I would add that the proposed solutions are non sequiturs and also slavery didn’t start until after Joseph’s death.
I suggest that we note that it was the Masorites, during the second half of the first millennium, who divided the Torah, which originally had no divisions, with spaces for separations. They did so based on their subjective judgments, which were usually intelligent. They felt that the narrative of Jacob’s descent into Egypt did not end 1n 47:27 but in 47:31. Therefore they didn’t place their separation after verse 27 but after 31. The Christians who developed the chapters agreed with Masorites. But the people who divided the Torah readings into 54 portions so that one portion could be read each week, decided differently. Thus, there is no separation simply because the Masorites felt that there shouldn’t be one.
This is not the only instance of a tradition developing that is contrary to the Masorites. Tradition states that there are ten statements in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). What is the first and second? The Masorites placed their division after the second, indicating that what current tradition considers the first and second commands, is the first. They divided what current tradition considers the tenth command into two. Thus while Torah scrolls used in synagogues have the Masoretic divisions as do most Hebrew printed Bibles, current tradition ignores this and divides the commands differently.)