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Parshat Miketz: Who was that Man and What did He Say? Anonymous Figures in Sefer Beraishit by Yaakov Bieler

December 1, 2010 by  
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There are a number of anonymous characters that play significant roles in the stories of Beraishit. For example, we know nothing about the identity of the survivor from the wars of the kings that comes to tell Avraham that his nephew Lot has been captured (14:13).  There are apparently at least two individuals that accompany Avraham and Yitzchak to Har HaMoria where the Akeida takes place. Who are they? What do they see? What do they think transpired there (22:3)? What is the background and identity of the individual who helps Yosef locate his brothers? If this person was not where he was, just when Yosef came along, or even if he was there, but was unaware of the whereabouts of Yosef’s brothers, would Jewish history have been altered (37:15)?  Is there anything unique about the head of the prison in which Yosef is incarcerated that causes him to appoint Yosef to an important position among the prisoners, which in turn leads to his contact with the wine steward and the baker and eventual elevation to chancellor of Egypt (39:22)?

Divine Manipulation or Simple Happenstance?

In some of these instances, the Rabbis, as cited by RaShI, suggest that the Tora is not describing faceless individuals who happen to be in the right place at the right time, but rather angels,[1] Divinely Orchestrated to influence human history and assure that the course of events would continue to follow the script that God Intends.[2]  While such an approach may explain why such individuals play the extraordinary roles that they do, couldn’t we also just as easily view them as ordinary human beings serendipitously being drawn into the saga of the Jewish people, without Someone necessarily “Pulling strings” from behind the scenes? The assumption of angels being involved in human affairs begs the question of the extent to which human beings are truly endowed with unconditional free choice.

An anonymous character has either appeared previously or will appear again

A second approach for identifying these individuals, whom the biblical text identifies in only the most general terms, is associating them with people whom we encounter over the course of the Tora narrative. [3] Such interpretations attempt to put a face upon an otherwise anonymous individual. While it could be maintained that by virtue of failing to identify such people explicitly, the Tora is suggesting that their personal identities are irrelevant to the story in which they play a role,[4] on the other hand, by associating the anonymous character with one who is known, we are able to reconcile the individual’s personality and status with the actions being described.[5]

The Mysterious Head of Yosef’s household

In Parshat MiKetz we are introduced to Yosef’s charge d’affaires.   Our attention is particularly drawn to his conversation with the brothers when they return a second time to obtain food from Egypt. In 43:16, this man is told by his master to bring the brothers to Yosef’s living quarters and to prepare an appropriate meal, which Yosef intends to eat together with them.  However, instead of the brothers feeling flattered by the special attention that they are receiving, they are terrified. When the brothers had first been accused of spying during their previous expedition to buy food (42:9), and temporarily jailed, Reuven had articulated his guilt and fear over what they all had done to Yosef more than two decades earlier (42:22).  Now that the brothers have returned to Egypt for a second time, they are all extremely frightened over possible repercussions for discovering in their sacks during their journey back to Canaan, not only the food that they purchased, but also the money that they had paid for it (42:27). Their fears of retribution cause them to assume that their being taken to some private place away from the court of the palace is in order to subject them to horrific torture or punishment, removed from all public scrutiny. The brothers think that they have to save themselves from some sort of terrible fate, and plead their ignorance and innocence to Yosef’s head of household, trying to explain the sequence of events that led up to and then followed the discovery of the money (43:19-22). 

A possible clue to the man’s specific identity?

It is at this point that the unnamed head of Yosef’s household contributes an important perspective to the story, and it is as a result of his comment that we begin to wonder about who he actually may be. In addition to reassuring them that he had in fact received payment for the food that they had brought back to Canaan, the man proceeds to tell them,

Beraishit 43:23

“…‘Peace be unto you. Do not be afraid. Elokeichem (your God) and Elokei Avichem (the God of your father) Has Given you a treasure in your sacks…’”

He thereby tells the brothers that rather than viewing the discovery of the money as a cause for concern, they should approach their windfall as an indication of particular Divine Favor within the context of the family’s traditional belief system. This language appears to be highly atypical for anyone not being expected to be familiar with monotheism.  Consequently the Rabbis suggest that he is in fact Menashe, Yosef’s oldest son (41:51).  Such a conclusion would appear to be based solidly on what Yosef, his father, later tells his siblings when he finally reveals his identity to them:

                Ibid. 45:5, 7-9

And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life… And God sent me before you to give you a remnant on the earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 

Assuming that Yosef did not come to this weltanschaung suddenly, but had been thinking about the Hand of God in his life from the time that he was transformed from a prisoner into the second-in-command in Egypt, then he reasonably previously talked about such a concept with the members of his family, including his son, Menashe.[6]  If Yosef has this type of perspective on the history of his family, it would not be unexpected that his son Menashe would share a similar outlook.

An outsider’s cynical, jealous  view of Avraham’s family’s special relationship with the Divine.

An approach that is in marked contrast to the Rabbinical view is that of RaShBaM. This commentator approaches Yosef’s head of household’s comments as less an indication of how  God Deals with people, and more a comment upon a “Jewish” talent for manipulation of the Divine. The man’s comments are interpreted as reflecting the assumption that things similar to the money being returned to the brothers standardly happen to Jews since “everyone knows that they (the Jews) were trained in the performance of miracles.”  In other words, due to their close connection to God, they are able to “make” Him Do things on their behalf, and the return of the money is just an example of this close relationship between God and His People. Rather than attempting to comfort the brothers in their distress, RaShBaM implies that the man is dismissing their expressed fears, asserting that they are misrepresenting themselves when they say that they don’t know how the money got there; in fact, they were the ones who were able to get their money back via the performance of a miracle.

The relationship between magic and miracles within the Egyptian experience.

Once RaShBaM was unprepared to assume that Yosef’s head of household was reflecting a Jewishly valid theological approach, and more likely was stating a typical Egyptian perspective, he  posited that the individual in question was reflecting an attitude in keeping with the Tora’s general association between Egypt and magic.  From the Tora’s perspective, Egypt is a society in which magic plays a major role. After Pharoah’s two dreams, he consults with his sorcerers (41:8), among others, to try to ascertain the visions’ significance for him and the country. The impressive effect of the miraculous sign that Moshe and Aharon perform in Pharoah’s presence (Shemot 7:11), as well as that of the first two plagues is somewhat mitigated, at least in Pharoah’s mind, when his magicians are able to perform what appear to be comparable feats (7:22; 8:3). It is only when lice are produced that the local magicians are stymied and fail to replicate the phenomenon (8:14), leading them to withdraw from what had been until that point a competition between them and Moshe and Aharon. Even the Jews seem to be unsure whether Moshe is truly God’s Emissary or yet another magician who can perform tricks on a grand scale, leading them to revert back to idolatry via the Golden Calf when Moshe disappears.

Jews viewed by the Egyptians as practitioners of magic.

If the Jews had a reputation for being able to practice magic, the reappearance of the brothers’ money would not be considered all that extraordinary in the eyes of the typical Egyptian, who was accustomed to the occult and mysterious spells and incantations. Such a Jewish reputation for mastery over magic/miracles could have been based upon several Biblical stories and Rabbinic traditions.  Rulers, including Pharoah, experienced  supernatural events when attempting to marry Sara (Beraishit 12:17; 20:3).  Avraham and Yitzchak enjoy extraordinary material success over a relatively short period of time (13:2; 24:1; 26:12). Although not a military man, Avraham manages to defeat a large army while being massively outnumbered (14:14-15).  Yaakov utilizes a highly unscientific methodology involving placing peeled twigs before sheep and goats in order to influence the number of spotted and speckled animals born to the herd (30:37 ff.). And the Rabbis attribute the ability to make water rise up to various key figures in Avraham’s family and their descendents to be a tradition that was handed down from generation to generation, with Yaakov ultimately teaching it to Pharoah—see e.g., RaShI on 21:30—Avraham;[7] Midrash Sechel Tov on 24:17—Rivka;[8] Midrash Aggadat Beraishit 42:1—Yaakov.[9] 

Could Yosef have scripted his servant’s words in light of what he overheard them saying when they first were accused of being spies (42:21-3)?

However, one can offer an alternate and more psychologically intriguing approach for understanding why Yosef’s head of household is claiming that God is responsible for the return of the brothers’ money.  The brothers themselves initially invoke the idea that “Elokim” is behind the replacement of the money in their sacks. In 42:28, when they first discover that their money has been returned, we read, “…and their hearts went out, and each one trembled concerning his brother, saying, ‘What is this that Elokim has done to us?’”  Before this point, the brothers had already been reeling from having been accused of being spies (42:9), put in prison and told that one of them would be allowed to return home to bring back Binyamin in order that the charge of spying be lifted (42:16), followed by the revised demand that only one of them was to remain as a hostage until Binyamin could be produced on a return visit (42:19).  What had started out as a relatively straightforward mission to Egypt to obtain food for the starving members of their family in Canaan, had turned into a nightmare, and they no longer felt in even moderate control of the things that were happening to them. Therefore, the return of the money was just one more indication that the list of accusations against them would continue to grow, and they were becoming convinced that these events were Divinely orchestrated, rather than mere happenstance.  The once boastful brothers, who had the courage to say, (37:19-20), “Behold, the master of dreams is coming. Now let us kill him, throw him into one of these many pits, and say that a wild animal devoured him. Let us see what will become of his dreams”, seem to have lost their confidence and self-assuredness. Upon their return to Canaan, the brothers try to put what happened to them in Egypt out of their minds. But they soon realize that they can’t leave Shimon (42:24) to languish forever in an Egyptian prison, as much as they would have liked to avoid traveling back to Egypt and facing Yosef and his accusations yet again. The intensification of the famine (43:1) forces their hand and after convincing a reluctant Yaakov to allow Binyamin to accompany them, they retrace their journey to Egypt with considerable trepidation. Their fears are only exacerbated (43:18) when they are taken to Yosef’s private living quarters.

Yosef as master psychologist

 Within such a context, we could surmise that since Yosef has deliberately contributed to each step of his brothers’ growing discomfort, he additionally anticipates and therefore scripts the comments of his representative to try to further cause them emotional turmoil, using terminology that he knows will play on their already shattered psyches. Perhaps Yosef fully expected that when the brothers listened to Yosef’s head of household’s outwardly comforting words, they would transpose his comments into additional cause for fear and even terror, i.e., “Yes, Elokim is indeed behind this, as well as everything else that has been happening to our family of late; but He is not trying to Provide us with treasure. He is rather Creating a circumstantial web of evidence whereby we will end up being imprisoned for the rest of our lives and never see our families again.” Furthermore, since “Elokim” is the Divine Name specifically associated with judgment, we can speculate whether more and more of the brothers are not reaching the same conclusion originally articulated by Reuven (42:22), i.e., that everything taking place is the result of and atonement for their ill-treatment, imprisonment, and ultimate elimination of Yosef over two decades before.

The support for the head of Yosef’s household being Menashe can also be used to buttress the contention that Yosef is the author of the script.

The same  proof text for claiming that the head of the household is Menashe, can also be referenced as the basis for suggesting that Yosef himself was the author of the Egyptian’s words to his brothers.  can be found in 45:5-8.  When Yosef finally tells his brothers   “…Now, you weren’t the ones who sent me here; it was Elokim. It was He Who Made me an advisor to Pharoah, master over his house, and ruler over the entire land of Egypt,” were these words meant to resonate with what his head of household had just recently told them? While the sentiment is certainly theologically correct, one wonders whether Yosef might once again, consciously or subconsciously, be playing with his brothers’ minds, and by his reiterating how God is Responsible for all that has happened, he is further precipitating ruminations concerning the brothers’ personal complicity in his own disappearance and exile.   

An argument against suggesting that 43:23 was scripted by Yosef.

However, an argument against taking the position that Yosef’s comments to his brothers in 45:5-8 are parallel to his head of household’s remarks in 43:23, and share a similar intent to increase pressure on the brothers’ guilty consciences, would posit that once Yosef has ceased the charade, he has determined that the brothers no longer need to feel remorse for what they had done, that the catharsis was complete, and all has been forgiven. Would it make sense that Yosef would keep chiding his brothers, even if only subtly, from this point forward?  The Rabbis point to a number of incidents where it is unclear what Yosef might have been thinking—he either deliberately was playing with their minds and extracting further revenge for what had been done to him, or his motivations may have been pure, and the acts were negatively and incorrectly interpreted by the brothers out of a sense of paranoia.[10]  Two examples of such incidents are listed in Beraishit Rabba 100:8.  First, following Yosef’s revealing his identity, he stops inviting his brothers for meals. The Midrash explains Yosef’s rationale as not wishing to be in a position where his superiority over his older brothers, in terms of the seating arrangement, would be emphasized. The brothers, however, understood that he was not interested in spending time with them because he resented them so much for what they had done to him. Second, on his return from Yaakov’s burial in Canaan, Yosef makes a detour to Shechem to look at the pit into which his brothers had thrown him all those years ago. Yosef could claim that he wanted to revisit his humble beginnings, to put all that subsequently happened to him in proper perspective. The brothers on the other hand could easily conclude that Yosef was rubbing it in, and now that he no longer had to consider Yaakov’s sensibilities, he would finally avenge himself upon them, as they had expected all along.

The difficulties involved in establishing personal conscious and even subconscious motivation.

According to Jewish tradition, we have responsibilities towards one another. We are supposed to extend acts of kindness towards others, as well as call attention to moral and religious shortcomings. But these acts of kindness can turn into cause for additional indignation and alienation, were they to be understood to be set into motion by a guilty conscience, or the desire to cull favor in order to ultimately receive some sort of benefit. Furthermore, the Chazon Ish has said that only if one can offer rebuke out of a clear sense of love is it permissible to engage in such personal criticism. Could even Yosef HaTzaddik be perfectly confident that his motivations for rebuking his brothers, and making them go through parallel experiences to his own, were entirely pure? And then there are the reactions of the recipients of these “loving” rebukes.  What happens if the receivers and listeners, in this case the brothers, perceive even pure, loving acts and statements by Yosef, in a manner that sheds negative light upon him? Rather than giving Yosef the benefit of the doubt, at least some of his brothers think that Yosef’s good deeds are performed in order to remove some personal guilt on the part of Yosef—what about all those evil reports about the brothers that Yosef brought to Yaakov, and while the family did not appear to make serious efforts to locate him, why didn’t Yosef make stronger efforts to contact them at least after his coronation?—and the kind words are double entendres, concealing hatred and bitterness?

The importance of truly clearing the air and moving on.

Naturally, the issues between Yosef and his brothers were extremely major and it is not hard to see how the memories of these events could remain fresh in people’s minds possibly throughout their lives. But what is apparent to us all is that once there is animosity between people, even relatively slight misunderstandings or hurts, it becomes difficult to ever regain one another’s trust, no matter what each tries to do for the other. No matter how much time elapses, one’s perception and interpretation of reality will be significantly influenced by one’s baggage, personal history, and prior interactions with others. This is no less true on the global stage, as it is within our communities and families. In light of such a theme, it would be appropriate to work that much harder to truly forgive those who have wronged us, so that not only could we get on with our individual lives, but that we can begin to properly understand and appreciate one another. 


[1] E.g., 37:15—Gavriel or Refael. The fascinating practical difference between which particular angel was involved emerges from the association between Gavriel and destruction/punishment on the one hand, and Refael and healing/salvation. While in the short term, undergoing the trials and tribulations to which Yosef was subjected stemming directly from his being directed to his brothers in Shechem could very well be attributed to Gavriel, the long view of the Jews ultimately fulfilling the prediction in the Covenant between the Pieces (Beraishit 15:13-4), i.e., that the Jews would be exiled and enslaved, prior to their redemption and being given the land of Israel , could be considered in Rafael’s purview.

32:25—the Guardian Angel of Eisav. One approach contends that by experiencing the ability to defeat a spiritual power that supports Eisav, Yaakov first develops  the courage to fearlessly face the flesh-and-blood Eisav the following morning, which once again significantly impacts Jewish history at that point.

[2] Regarding this general question, I find myself being drawn repeatedly to a passage in Robert Alter’s The Art of the Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, NY, 1981, p. 33):

(The Tora) … seeks through the process of narrative realization to reveal the enactment of God’s purposes in historical events. This enactment however is continually complicated by a perception of two, approximately parallel, dialectical tensions. One is a tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events, or to translate this opposition into specifically biblical terms, between the divine promise and its ostensible failure to be fulfilled; the other is a tension between God’s will, His providential guidance, and human freedom, the refractory nature of man.

[3]14:13—Og, who first is explicitly mentioned in BaMidbar 21;  18:7—Yishmael; 22:3—Eliezer and Yishmael; 24:1 ff. —Eliezer.

[4] In the case of Eliezer’s efforts to secure a wife for his master’s son, Yitzchak (24:1 ff.), some take the position that despite self-interest, i.e., Eliezer would have liked his own daughter to be Yitzchak’s bride, he acted as the ultimate, faceless, extension of Avraham, and faithfully carried out his mission.

[5] Was Og’s intention by informing Avraham of Lot’s capture, to draw Avraham into a conflict that might very likely result in his death, thereby eliminating a competitor for domination in the area? Ultimately Og is defeated by Avraham’s descendants in BaMidbar 21:33-5.

[6] While the parallelism in the perspectives offered suggests that there is a familial relationship between Yosef and his head of household, some commentators are bothered by chronological considerations:

Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosfot on 43:17

…the Rabbis have said, “This is Menashe (the oldest of Yosef’s two sons, born in Egypt [41:51]).” And this is surprising because we derive that one who is thirteen is ready for performing Commandments (Avot 5:21) from Shimon and Levi, because when they attacked Shechem (34:25), they were only thirteen when you calculate their ages. And it says regarding them, (34:25) “Ish Charbo” (each man his sword), and if one then calculates Menashe’s age, you find that he was no more than nine at the most, because, behold he was born prior to the years of famine (41:50), and even if you assume that he was born at the beginning of the years of plenty (Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams entailed predicting that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine [41:29-31]) he would have been no more than nine—the seven years of plenty and the two years of famine (at which point the brothers come to Egypt seeking food) and nevertheless he is referred to as an “Ish” (an adult male, that must at least be thirteen.) From R. Chaim who said this in the name of HaRav Avraham Eliezer Avi HaEzri, and the matter requires discernment.

[7]The proof to Avimelech that the wells belonged to Avraham was that when the Jews went to draw water from them, the water rose to meet them.

[8]Eliezer knew that Rivka was the “Bashert” for Yitzchak, when she not only offered to draw water for him and his animals, but the water rose up to meet her when she was collecting it.

[9]Yaakov blessed Pharoah by supplying him with the secret of making the water rise to meet you, thereby presenting him with the ability to control the Nile, the centerpiece of Egypt’s irrigation system for its crops.  

[10] The ultimate example of their ongoing discomfort is embodied in 50:15-17. Upon Yaakov’s death, the brothers come to Yosef and tell him that before he died, he instructed them to tell Yosef that he must take an oath not to harm his siblings. ChaZaL assume that Yaakov never did any such thing, and that this serves as a circumstance wherein considerations of “Shalom Bayit” (domestic tranquility) trump telling the truth. See Yevamot 65b.

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