Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Miketz 5761/ 30 December 2000

"Some of the choice products of the land"

Dr. Yair ha-Levi
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science

Parashat Mi-Ketz (Chapters 42-43) finds Jacob's family in the depths of economic, familial and personal difficulties: Joseph (vizier and dispenser of rations) would not acknowledge his brothers, but addressed harsh words to them; the brothers had begun soul-searching because of the sale of Joseph; and Jacob was arguing with his sons, especially Judah and Reuben, because of the hardship the famine had brought them.

Judah succeeded in convincing his father Jacob to send Benjamin with them under his care, promising him, "I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible" (Gen. 43:9), and adding another convincing argument: "For we could have been there and back twice if we had not dawdled" (v. 10).

Jacob gave his sons several guidelines for going to Egypt and meeting with the man in charge (Joseph): "Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be so, do this: take some of the choice products of the land [Heb. me-zimrat ha-aretz] in your baggage, and carry them down as a gift for the man - some balm and some honey, gum, ladanum [myrrh, an aromatic gum], pistachio nuts, and almonds'" (v. 11). And he continued, "And take with you double the money, ... Take your brother too; and go back at once to the man. And may El Shaddai dispose the man to mercy toward you" (v. 12).

There are major difficulties in understanding Jacob's behavior, as described here, in trying to please the man. According to his sons' account, Jacob knows that the man (Joseph) is vizier of the king of Egypt (Pharaoh), that he rules the land and dispenses rations to all the people, and that he has a strong and unyielding personality. If so, how would such a meager gift influence a man who has all the wealth of Egypt and the best of the land at his disposal and cause him to change his character and attitude?

Furthermore, Jacob had previous experience with appeasement offerings - his gift to his brother Esau to assuage the latter's jealousy of him. There we note that his offering consisted of a great quantity of sheep and cattle - an offering of superb quality and variety, designed to impress Esau; and the offering, according to the Midrash, was brought by the ministering angels, who inspired Esau and his men with awe. In contrast, in the present case Jacob repeatedly emphasized the paucity of the gift: "some (lit.: a small amount of) balm and some honey." How could a handful of almonds appease the lord of the land who was pretending not to recognize his brothers, even if along with the handful of nuts the brothers were to prostrate themselves before the man?

This question was addressed by Sforno, who commented:

If it is indeed as you said, that the man challenged you and he is G-d-fearing, you must certainly do as follows: "take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage, ... some balm, etc." For, indeed, the gift that should be brought to a man who is impressed by wealth (such as Efron, Laban and Esau) must be plentiful to please the eye, and such was Jacob's offering (to Esau). But when a gift is given to a man of wealth who is not impressed by money (such as Joseph), it ought to be relatively modest in quantity, but should be of the most select (quality) items found in small amount in kings' palaces; such was the offering brought to Joseph. "And carry them down as a gift for the man" - before you enter his presence, so that you will know whether he will receive you favorably ... and afterwards "go back at once to the man." For in any event you will have appeased him somewhat by the gift sent ahead, as it is said: "A bribe seems like a charm to him who uses it" (Prov. 17:8).

Jacob had the wisdom and experience to perceive that in this particular case the person who had all the wealth of Egypt at his disposal would not be impressed by a quantitative gift, but by an especially qualitative gift. The emphasis was on the select and excellent choice of items, rare and regal things unique to the finest produce of the land of Israel and not to be found in Egypt after two years of severe famine (even though stores of grain had been set aside for the seven years of famine).

Onkelos, Targum (Pseudo)Jonathan ben Uziel, Rashi and Ibn Ezra all preceded the Sforno in this line of interpretation. The targums said "the best of the land", Rashi played on the dual meaning of zimra (=song) in the phrase "of the choice products of the land (me-zimrat ha-aretz)," interpreting this as things which "everyone sings about when they come into the world" (Rashi). Ibn Ezra also related zimrat to zmirot; i.e., the produce of the land of Israel that everyone rejoices and sings its praises when such produce is received. Thus the offering of fine quality expressed the great importance that its givers attributed to the man who ruled the land. They hoped Pharaoh's vizier would soften and be appeased by the regal gifts, and that these gifts would act on him as a charm, moving him more than any present of great quantity.

I would like to add a new interpretation suggested to me by the idea of an offering which had the taste of the land of Israel. Rashi cites Genesis Rabbah on the verse, "And may El-Shaddai dispose the man to mercy toward you, that he may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin (43:14)," explaining that the word "other" (aher) signifies that the holy spirit was made to rest on him, including Joseph. By sending the important man produce from the land of Israel, Jacob (who knew the man to be G-d-fearing) wished to evoke in him a softer, more merciful and gentle nature, such as was characteristic of those who dwelled in the land of Israel; for he believed that as G-d-fearing person, the man's origins must be from Israel.

Indeed, this parasha is not our first contact with these special products. In the account of the sale of Joseph we read, "Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt" (37:25)-- the same three choice products from the land of Israel included in Jacob's offering. Joseph parted from his brothers with produce from the land of Israel, and by means of the offering they brought which included the same three choice products from the land of Israel, he returned and made himself known to them. This offering served its purpose, as the Bible goes on to tell us: "With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother" (43:30), and "Joseph could no longer control himself ... Joseph made himself known to his brothers" (45:1).
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