Yosef’s Oath

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, VaYechi, describes the final days of Yaakov Avinu our last Patriarch. His travails and triumphs occupy more Torah space than that of any other founding father or mother. His task was to effectuate the transition of the Jews from a small group of people–who adhered to the religion of Abraham–into a duly constituted national entity whose mission was to proclaim the truths of Torah to mankind.

Yaakov’s path was beset by enemies who sought his downfall. He had to escape from the murderous intentions of his brother Eisav as well as his uncle Lavan who had become intolerably envious of his nephew’s fantastic economic success. But that wasn’t the culmination of his troubles, for his daughter, Dina, was raped and kidnapped by Shechem whose father was the ruler of that city.

In consultation with his sons, a plan was hatched to rescue Dina, but Yaakov was blindsided by the excessive aggression of Shimon and Levi. With the help of Divine Providence, he escaped the anticipated retribution for the slaughter of Shechem, but he was still to find no tranquility.

Suddenly there burst upon him the tribulations of Yosef and his brothers. Yaakov contributed to the hostilities by his open favoritism of Yosef, but he never anticipated that the reaction to his indulgence would be so harsh. For those who regard the Patriarchs as infallible, the missteps of Yaakov, Yosef and the brothers should provide cause to reassess their position.

Parshat VaYechi describes the final days of Yaakov and the arrangements he made for his burial. He solicited an oath from Yosef that he would not bury him in Egypt, but would instead inter him in his designated resting place in the Cave of Machpelah.

Many commentators have wondered why it was not enough to take Yosef at his word and, instead, impose an oath on him.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that the oath was not necessary to assure Yosef’s compliance, as his integrity was beyond question. Rather, it was required in order to secure the permission of Pharaoh. The notion that Pharaoh was reluctant to release Yaakov for burial in Canaan can be seen in the text.

“The days of his weeping passed and Yosef spoke to Pharaoh’s household, saying, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, please speak within hearing of Pharaoh saying: ‘my father made me swear, saying, Look I am going to die, so bury me there, in my grave that I acquired for myself in the land of Canaan’; so now, let me please go, and I will bury my father, and then I will return.’ Pharaoh said; ‘Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.’ (Bereishit 50:4-6)” 

Yosef framed his request to Pharaoh on the basis of the oath he had given his father, and Pharaoh’s positive response seems based on his desire to allow Yosef to fulfill his vow. Thus, absent the oath, there is no guarantee that Pharaoh would have given permission for Yaakov to be buried outside of Egypt. However, this raises many questions.

Did this constitute a backtracking from Pharaoh’s original granting of absolute power to Yosef? Immediately after the onset of the famine, “The entire land of Egypt hungered and the people cried out to Pharaoh for food. Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, ‘Go to Yosef and do whatever he tells you.’ (Bereishit 41:55)”

Indeed, in his original appointment of Yosef Pharaoh had said, “You will be over my house and all my people will be sustained by your word; only by the throne will I be greater than you. (Bereishit 41:40)” At that point, no one stood between Pharaoh and Yosef, and it is reasonable to assume that Yosef could have made the decision to bury his father in the family plot without the need to even solicit Pharaoh’s agreement.

Rabbi Israel Chait has pointed out that we can deduce from this that Yosef no longer had the absolute power that he had originally been granted. Now he has to plead his case with the “house of Pharaoh” which he had once ruled over and had to resort to the oath he had sworn to bolster his case. Why did Yosef’s position of supreme power deteriorate?

This would seem to reflect a phenomenon which has occurred many times in Jewish history. Yosef’s leverage was great when Egypt was vulnerable and in need of his formidable wisdom and leadership skills. In the years of famine, Pharaoh warned the Egyptians to do whatever Yosef said. But, eventually, the famine wore off and things returned to normal.

The need for Yosef was no longer so compelling; and the latent resentments against this foreigner Jew, telling them what to do, might have begun to assert themselves. Yosef, quite wisely, adjusted his leadership style to the realities of the present and was able to achieve his goal. He did not seek to behave as someone who could do whatever he wanted.

The Jews have gone through the “Yosef experience” many times in their history. It teaches us never to place our full confidence in the seeming beneficence of the countries in which we sojourn. We are still Jews and the “law” that “Eisav hates Yaakov” is still in effect. We must deal with that wisely and judiciously and draw the proper conclusions.

Shabbat Shalom.