When the food that Jacob’s sons brought back with them from Egypt runs out, their father consents to their taking Benjamin with them to Egypt. This is a critical moment in the biography of the Patriarch Jacob. The two sons of his late, beloved wife Rachel are taken from him and he feels deprived of everything. He grudgingly gives his permission and, to enhance the prospects that his son will return to him alive and well, Jacob counsels his sons: “And their father Israel said unto them: ‘If it be so now, do this: take of the choice fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spicery and ladanum, nuts, and almonds’” (Genesis 43:11).
The sages focus on one of the seemingly less important connecting words in this verse, with the goal of extracting from it the emotional state that Jacob is in at this time: “It is written: ‘And their father Israel said unto them: “If it be so now [im ken efo].” Rabbi Levy, citing Rabbi Tanhum, son of Hannilai, interprets this verse as: ‘Am I now experiencing the very same deep anxiety that I caused my father [Isaac], who cried out “Who then [mi eyfo]....”’” (Bereisheet Rabba 91:10).
On the previous occasion in Genesis when the word eyfo (therefore) is uttered, it is heard on the lips of the Patriarch Isaac, when Esau arrives with the venison that his father asked him to bring, and immediately after Jacob, who received the blessing intended for Esau, leaves: “And Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said: ‘Who then is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? Yea, and he shall be blessed’” (Gen. 27:33). Even though Isaac asks “Who then...?” he already knows the answer, which he provides Esau with two verses later: “Thy brother came with guile, and hath taken away thy blessing” (Gen. 27:35).
When Jacob begins his counsel to his sons with, “If it be so now [im ken eyfo],” using the same word, “eyfo,” one can hear the echo of the moment of Isaac’s understanding, years before, that Jacob deceived him and took the blessing meant for his older brother, Esau. “Is it possible,” Jacob asks, according to the interpretation of Rabbi Tanhuma, “that I am now experiencing the very same deep anxiety that I caused my father Isaac?”
Jacob’s painful astonishment is concentrated in the single word “eyfo,” which establishes an intertextual, perhaps even not fully conscious, connection with what his father said years before. When he consents to the idea that Benjamin will travel with his other sons to Egypt, Jacob experiences a moment of brilliant clarity; in this moment, he reconstructs what he did to his father. He is robbed of the destiny he intended for Benjamin, just as Isaac was robbed of the destiny he intended for Esau. The use of the word “eyfo” thus reveals the feelings of guilt that Jacob still experiences over his having stolen his father’s blessing.
Admittedly, there is no need for complicated midrashic maneuvers in order to extract this meaning from a literal reading of the text. The syntax of the stories of Genesis screams out for such an interpretation. In Genesis, the previous generations’ actions occur multiple times; they are replicated and interpreted again and again by the descendants of those generations − from Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob and from Jacob to his sons. Moreover, Midrash Rabba links the Patriarchs’ stories in Genesis to the political and social reality of the period when this great midrashic work was compiled. The supreme law of Genesis’s historiography is that the sins of the past can never be evaded: They will always return and be reenacted through the actions of the descendants.
One figure in Genesis, however, does try to escape the constantly repeating fate of Abraham’s family, seeking to begin a new story from scratch, to tell a narrative that has never before been recounted. That figure is Joseph, who is vomited out of his family, settles in Egypt, marries “Asenath, the daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On” (Gen. 41:45), and has two sons to whom he gives symbolic names: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘For God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘For God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’” (Gen. 41:51-52).
The first son’s name represents Joseph’s forgetting of his father’s home, while the second son’s name represents Joseph’s fruitfulness in his new land. This is the ethos of a new story that includes neither the memories of the past nor the reenactments of previous actions.
When Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt, he informs them that one of their brothers must stay behind there − in prison − as the condition for their returning to their father’s home. Reenacting the story of his own sale into slavery, Joseph forces his siblings to once again sell one of their brothers and to leave him behind. He wants to bring about the resurfacing of the brothers’ guilt and to artificially reenact the actions of the descendants of Abraham. On the one hand, the reenactment has the same effect on the brothers in precisely the same way that the reenacted deed affected their father: “And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us’” (Gen. 42:21).
The brothers interpret their present moment of crisis as a reenactment of their sale of Joseph into slavery, and through that moment of reenactment, their feelings of guilt over the sale of Joseph are revealed. Once again, expression is given to the concept, the convention, the narrative and psychological feature that it is impossible to escape the actions of the past, that sinners are condemned to suffer repeatedly the fate that they imposed on their victims.
This reenactment is very different from the reenactment that Jacob recognizes through the word “eyfo,” when coincidence, or divine providence, returns him to the same situation his father faced. Joseph’s reenactment is an artificial act planned and crafted by human hands. Joseph himself sits above, like a puppet master, pulling the strings that he knows so well. He is the immigrant who creates himself from scratch, free of all the baggage of the past. Although he knows how to activate his brothers, he himself has already been fruitful and has multiplied in the land of his poverty; he does not need to reenact the deeds of the past. Joseph stands outside Genesis’s narrative, enacting it anew − but this time as a deliberately planned act of revenge.
The brothers react as planned; however, surprisingly enough (or perhaps not so surprisingly), the revenge plot not only reawakens their feelings of guilt, but also wrings Joseph’s heart. When the brothers speak between themselves about the fate that returns to haunt them because of their having sold Joseph, he himself is deeply affected: “And he turned himself about from them, and wept; and he returned to them, and spoke to them” (Gen. 42:24).
Joseph discovers that he himself is still activated by the patterns of the Genesis narrative, which is reenacted for him, as well. He hurls Simeon into the pit, but he himself is also once more hurled into the pit. He turns his back and cries; he wipes the tears from his eyes and returns. He disconnects the internal events to which he reacts as a member of Abraham’s family from the external appearance that is not reenacted. Will Joseph succeed where his forefathers failed? Will he be able to tell his story once more, without any traces of the past?
In Parsashat Vayechi, which will be read in synagogue in two weeks, after Jacob journeys to Egypt and meets Joseph, the latter brings his two sons, the symbol of his forgetting of his father’s house and the symbol of his fruitfulness in Egypt, to Jacob, who tells him, “And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine” (Gen. 48:5). Joseph’s two sons are expropriated from his custody and transferred to that of Jacob. The transfer is given concrete, physical evidence: “And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the first-born ... And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’ And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations’” (Gen. 48:14-19).
Although Joseph tries to create a new order, based on his own criteria, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and once more reenacts the anarchic tradition of Abraham’s family. Just as Isaac was preferred over Ishmael, just as Jacob was preferred over Esau, just as Benjamin and Joseph were preferred over their older brothers, Ephraim is preferred over Manasseh. Although one can protest and try to shift Jacob’s hand, in the final analysis, one cannot cut oneself off from the previous generations; one can only reenact their mistakes.
What remains of the protest? The severing of ties from the tradition of one’s forefathers does not take place but, through the reenactment of that tradition, there is perhaps the possibility of a fixing. Unlike Ishmael and Esau, Manasseh is not vomited out of his family: “he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great.” Furthermore, the sages assign Manasseh a key role in the communication that takes place between Joseph and his brothers: “It is written, ‘And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for the interpreter was between them’ [Gen. 42:23]; the interpreter was Manasseh” (Bereisheet Rabba 91:8).