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B'resheet/Genesis 43:27 And he asked as to their peace; and he said, "Does your father - the old man - of whom you spoke, have peace? Is he still alive?"
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Yosef addresses these words to his eleven brothers - Benjamin is with the other ten on this second family victualling trip to Egypt - as they stand before him in his role as Grand Vizier, Pharaoh's number two, in charge of food supplies. They are ignorant of his true identity as the upstart younger brother whom the ten sold (or allowed to be sold) into slavery over fifteen years ago. Perhaps the brothers are surprised that out of all the thousands of people who have appeared before him over the last few years to buy grain from outside the country, he even remembers them, let alone their father. After the fuss he made on their last visit about their being spies collecting data about Egypt's security procedures, it seems strange that he seems to want to talk about family matters. What is this anyway - throne-room chit-chat as if he is their doctor?
First of all, Yosef asks after the peace of the brothers. This is rather like asking if they are all well and in good health. Quite a reversal of affairs, Richard Elliott Friedman points out: "Recall that the brothers were described earlier as being unable to speak to Yosef, that is to say 'hello' or 'how are you?' Now they and Yosef finally speak of shalom. Even though unwitting, it is perhaps the beginning of reconciliation with their brother." Then Yosef goes on to ask about his father in very particular language. RabbiHirsch observes is much more than . While the former asks about the whole person, their well-being, mental state and quality of life, the latter only expresses an enquiry about external conditions, ignoring the internal possibilities of worry and stress. "Your father", Yosef adds, "the old man of whom you spoke, does he know peace, health and well-being?"
The atnakh accent on the word - the Qal 2mp affix form of the root , to say,1 here literally, "you (pl.) said" - should bring Yosef's question to an end, only Yosef adds two more words to the end of his question: "Is he still alive?" As Hirsch comments, "in asking after his father's well-being the horrible thought suddenly strikes him: G-d forbid, perhaps in the meantime he has died, and quickly he adds, 'He is still alive, isn't he?'" After all, as theSforno reminds us, the health of an old person is precarious, as our Sages say: "The lips of older people slacken and their ears become hard of hearing" (b. Shabbat 152a). Saadia Gaon reverses the order of Yosef's questions since "it is more reasonable to ask first whether someone is alive before asking if he is well," while Nahum Sarna suggests that "Yosef may immediately ask how Ya'akov is and then realise he should first enquire if he is still alive." Friedman again: "From the point of view of the brothers and Egyptians who are present, Yosef is just making polite conversation, graciously asking about, 'your old father whom you mentioned.' But, inside, Yosef is about to find out - with anticipation, dread, even guilt? - whether his own father, who loved him most, is alive or dead."
Yosef cares deeply for his father but cannot clearly read the situation in front of him. That is why he has to ask the second question. He sees one of his dreams being fulfilled - "There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf" (B'resheet 37:7, NJPS) - but isn't sure exactly what is going on, as Leon Kass demonstrates: "Eleven brothers bowing down at his feet, in a position of worship. But where is his father? Did he really send Benjamin of his own volition, or did the brothers wait until he died: 'Is the old man still alive?'"2 If Ya'akov is dead, then the second dream - "Look, I have had another dream ... there were the sun, the moon and eleven stars, bowing down to me" (v. 9, NJPS) - can't happen and he will have to handle the brothers differently. This really matters to Yosef and his plans for sorting out the brothers, healing the wound in his family, fulfilling the purposes of G-d and passing the baton successfully on to the next generation. He simply has to know.
In our text, then, the narrator gives us two completely different points of view. The first is that of the brothers and Yosef's Egyptian household. They hear Yosef making small talk before lunch, passing the time until the meal is ready in social etiquette. Perhaps his next comment will be about the weather or the state of the roads. They see Yosef as uninterested and disengaged. The second viewpoint is that of Yosef. For himself, he wants to see his father again and explain how G-d has dealt with him to get him to this extraordinary position of power in Egypt, to introduce his wife and children - his father's grandchildren - and to bless his father's closing years with a little comfort and security. More, as the man whom G-d is using to preserve the family alive through the years of famine and to make them into a great nation, he has to find out whether his father is still alive so that the emotional levers he is about to press with the brothers in order to prove their repentance still have their fulcrum in place. He is, on the contrary, critically involved.
The prophets show us the attitude that Israel presents in their relationship with G-d. Isaiah voicesHaShem saying, "that people has approached Me with its mouth and honored Me with its lips, but has kept its heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13, NJPS). Here Israel is seen in the same way as the Yosef is seen by the brothers: no serious engagement, just passing the time of day in ritual recited by memory. Two hundred years later, Jeremiah speaks for HaShem and rebukes the people: "Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, 'We are safe'? -- Safe to do all these abhorrent things!" (Jeremiah 7:9-10, NJPS). Israel's behaviour has deteriorated to openly breaking the commandments, engaging in idolatry and then claiming to trust in HaShem and feel confident that they are safe. They are just saying the words and doing the temple ritual without engaging in the slightest.
Ezekiel, the prophet in exile, hears HaShem telling him that the people are playing games with him: "they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as My people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (Ezekiel 33:31-32, ESV). The people pretend to listen, are even entertained by him, but will not and never intended to do what HaShem says. Ezekiel makes an amusing spectacle to while away the time before lunch. The people will not engage with what HaShem is saying to them. HaShem, on the contrary, is fully engaged and is about to press the levers of power to change His people's world: "When this comes -- and come it will! -- then they will know that a prophet has been among them" (v. 33, ESV). He isn't fazed by their lack of engagement; He will act anyway, unilaterally, and they will look back with hindsight and realise that He had been speaking through Ezekiel all the time - they would have done better to pay attention.
What attitude are we showing to G-d and to other people about how engaged or committed we are to our faith in G-d? Do we always turn aside serious conversations - particularly about G-d, encouraging each other in our walk of discipleship - in favour of social chit-chat and gossip? Rav Sha'ul warns the Ephesians that "obscene, coarse and stupid talk are out of place" (Ephesians 5:4, TLV) - they are inappropriate for the people who are called by G-d's name. There is nothing wrong with talking about the weather or asking how your mother-in-law got on at the dentist, but just wasting time in idle banter, endlessly talking about trivialities, shows that we are not engaging - we are avoiding engaging! Yeshua points out that "the things that proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and those things make the man unholy" (Matthew 15:18, TLV); our mouths betray our inner thoughts, desires and passions.
What happens when we interact directly with G-d, when we pray? He already knows exactly where we are - "what we are is known to G-d, and I hope it is known also to your conscience" (2 Corinthians 5:11, ESV) - and is looking for us to engage seriously with Him so that He can deal with our past, enable our present and empower our future with Him. If we refuse His invitations to talk openly to Him about our lives, our hopes and fears, confessing our failures and asking for grace, then we will make no progress. If we simply fritter away the time set apart to be with Him and never let Him near us, then we will not change, we cannot be conformed to the image of Yeshua and we will not grow to the measure of the fullness of the stature of Yeshua. We have to be transparent and open with our Father, crying on His shoulder and heeding His advice, letting Him look us straight in the eye and letting the Spirit mould our characters. In these days, the time for disengaged chit-chat has long gone, if it ever existed; we must get real with G-d at all cost!
1. - Aat over five thousand instances, the most frequently used verb in Tanakh.
2. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003), pages 588.
Further Study: Isaiah 1:12-17; Ecclesiasties 10:12-14; 2 Corinthians 4:2-4
Application: Are you serious about engaging with G-d, paying attention when He speaks and putting His word into practice? Or do you run through the prayers you have said a hundred times, not really expecting Him to take any notice or even be there? It's time to get real with G-d, to realise that He is there whether we think so or not, that we ignore Him at our peril. We must engage with Him at every opportunity, for "He is coming to judge the earth" (Psalm 98:9).
Comment - 12:55 19Dec22 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for another challenging drash. It reminds me of the comparison of our two pipes. The windpipe and the foodpipe, keep it simple. Ya'akov is associated with the windpipe and Esav with the foodpipe. May we merit that our pipe of choice is the one for praise and prayer and not appetites of the flesh.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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