Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 19 December 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776

Parshat Vayigash

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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After revealing himself to his brothers and reuniting with his father Yaakov, Yosef develops an elaborate plan to ensure that his family will be settled in Goshen. He tells them that he will speak to Pharaoh first, hoping that Pharaoh will offer them the land of Goshen without their requesting it. He wanted to keep his family as far away from the center of government as possible in order to prevent them from being tapped for administrative positions. This was necessary to protect them from possible assimilation into Egyptian society. However, since Pharaoh might still want to meet with the brothers personally, Yosef instructs them carefully as to what to say. They should emphasize that they are not simply shepherds and herdsmen of the animals of others. Rather, they are, and always have been, proprietors in the business of animal husbandry. This is a much more prestigious occupation. However, the result will be that, “you may be able to settle in the region of Goshen, since all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Ber. 46:34) The simple reading of this verse is that since Egypt was an agricultural society that worshipped certain animals as gods, and therefore would not engage in business with them, Pharaoh would want to keep this family with its abhorrent practices as far away as possible. However, Abarbanel shows that the Hebrew word which is normally translated as “abhorrent” can also be interpreted as a reference to the gods themselves. In effect, the verse would be saying that “all shepherds are like gods to the Egyptians.” Therefore, Pharaoh would actually honor them by granting them the land of Goshen, which was known for its exceptional fertility.

Yosef then goes ahead and speaks to Pharaoh. He is careful not to mention that “my brothers and my father’s household...have come to me.”(Ber. 46:31) Rather, he just says that they have arrived from the land of Canaan and have come to Goshen. He does not want Pharaoh to think that they are coming to be supported by Yosef through the royal treasury. Rather, Yosef emphasizes that they are independently wealthy.

However, Pharaoh does not explicitly grant them the land of Goshen, and therefore Yosef is forced to have them make the request of Pharaoh on their own. They emphasize again their profession, hoping that Pharaoh will get the hint and volunteer the land of Goshen. Pharaoh, however, remains silent, and now the brothers are forced to not only mention Goshen explicitly but also make it clear that they do not intend to remain permanently, but rather just to remain a year or two due to the severity of the famine in the land of Canaan.

Pharaoh does not respond to the brothers’ request. He addresses Yosef instead,saying, “Your father and your brothers have come to you...let them settle in the region of Goshen...appoint them as chamberlains over the livestock that belongs to me.” (Abarbanel emphasizes that this is another indication that shepherds were actually holy to the Egyptians, not abhorrent, because why else would Pharaoh own animals that required chamberlains?) (Ber. 47:5-6) Pharaoh’s strange response indicates that he has seen right through Yosef’s scheme. He knows that the real reason that they came was to be supported and protected by Yosef. As a result, Pharaoh declines to explicitly grant them permission. However, since Pharaoh had previously made Yosef viceroy over the entire land, Yosef could be the one to officially grant them residence in Goshen. This is what Pharaoh means when he says, ‘let them settle in Goshen.’ Pharaoh officially mentions Goshen, which is what Yosef wanted all along, but it will be Yosef who will let them settle there.

Finally, Abarbanel adds another fascinating reason why Yosef wanted to keep his brothers far away from involvement in the Egyptian government. He was afraid that once they tasted honor and power they would once again be jealous of the fact that he was still their superior. They might think that he didn’t deserve the power and prestige that he held in Egypt. If they had plotted to kill him over a simple coat that he received from Yaakov, all the more so would they be jealous of his supremely exalted position in Egypt. Insightfully, Yosef realized that the best way to maintain peace in the family was to keep his brothers involved with shepherding and herding in distant Goshen.

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