Yaakov’s Expressions of Deference towards Yosef

And it was after these events that Yosef was told, “Your father is ill.” He took his two sons – Menashe and Efraim – with him. Yaakov was told, “Your son Yosef comes to you.” And he strengthened himself and sat on the couch. (Sefer Beresheit 38:1-2)

1. Yaakov rises for Yosef the ruler

Parshat VaYeche describes the final episodes of Yaakov’s life and the events immediately thereafter. The passages above introduce the last recorded conversation between Yaakov and Yosef. Yosef is told that his father is ill. He gathers his sons Menashe and Efraim and proceeds to his father’s home. His father is told that Yosef is coming and he rises from his sick bed and assumes a sitting position to greet his son. The commentators discuss Yaakov’s reason for rising to greet Yosef. Rashi and others comment that in rising before Yosef, Yaakov was demonstrating respect for the authority of the ruler. In other words, Yosef was Yaakov’s son and was required to demonstrate respect for his father. However, Yosef was also Paroh’s Prime Minister. He was virtual ruler over the country. Because of Yosef’s position Yaakov felt that it was proper to rise to greet his son.[1]

Rashi’s comments here are consistent with his interpretation of another incident. Sefer Shemot describes the rescue of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. Toward the end of the account, Moshe comes to Paroh and warns him that if he continues to refuse to release Bnai Yisrael, Hashem will bring upon the Egyptians the terrible Plague of the Firstborn. Moshe knows that Paroh himself will come to him and beg him to lead Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. However, in his warning to Paroh, Moshe tells him that when this plague is brought upon them Paroh’s servants will petition Moshe. Why did Moshe not reveal to Paroh the extent to which he would be humiliated by this last plague? Rashi explains that Moshe was demonstrating respect for Paroh as ruler of Egypt.[2] In other words, although Paroh was a wicked ruler who has enforced a policy of brutal oppression and was the leader of a kingdom that had engaged in genocide against Bnai Yisrael, Moshe continued to demonstrate some degree of respect toward him.

2. Respect of the ruler is directed to his position not his person

In both of these instances, Rashi is presenting a thesis that is counter-intuitive. It seems strange that Yaakov would rise before Yosef his son. Yosef was the virtual ruler of Egypt but Yaakov was his elderly father. Would not Yosef’s duty to respect his father take precedence over Yaakov’s obligation to demonstrate deference to a ruler? The image of the aged Yaakov rising to greet his son Yosef seems bizarre and is unsettling. That Moshe should show any respect for the evil Paroh is even more disturbing. How can Rashi assert that the vicious persecutor of Bnai Yisrael deserved some degree of respect?

Apparently, according to Rashi, the requirement to respect a ruler is not to be interpreted as an obligation to respect the particular person who holds the position of ruler. Rather is to be understood as an obligation to demonstrate respect for the position of ruler. The specific person who holds the position of ruler may be despicable and in his own right deserving disdain. Nonetheless, his position and office must be respected. Similarly, Yaakov’s respect was not directed to Yosef his son. It was a response to the office that Yosef represented. Yaakov rose in response to Yosef’s position and office. Our Sages require that we recognize the importance of governmental authority within society. This concept is succinctly expressed in a teaching of our Sages. The Talmud instructs us to pray regularly for the welfare of the government. The Sages explain that without government, people would cruelly destroy one another.[3] A specific ruler may be evil and abuse his or her power. However, the institution of governmental authority is essential to the survival of society.

And the time of Yaakov’s death approached and he called to his son Yosef and he said to him, “If I have pleased you, place your hand under my thigh and perform with me (an act) of kindness and truth. Do not now bury me in Egypt. When I will lie with my fathers, carry me from Egypt and bury me in their gravesite.” And he said, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. And Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed. (Sefer Beresheit 47:29-31)

3. Bow to the fox in its moment

The above passages describe an earlier incident. Yaakov realizes that his death is approaching. He summons Yosef and asks him to take an oath that he will not bury him in Egypt. Instead, he should take his father’s body back to the Land of Cana’an and bury him the burial-site of his fathers. Yosef agrees and swears to fulfill his father’s wishes. Yaakov responds by bowing toward his son. Rashi makes an odd comment regarding Yaakov’s bow towards Yosef. He comments, “One should bow to a fox in its moment.”[4] Mizrahi explains Rashi’s comments. Yosef was Yaakov’s son and not of his father’s stature. He is compared to a fox – a humble, unimpressive creature. Nonetheless, at this moment Yaakov needed Yosef’s assistance. Only Yosef could assure that his wish to be buried in Cana’an would be fulfilled. Therefore, when Yosef agreed to his father’s request, it was appropriate for Yaakov to bow before Yosef. His bow was an expression of gratitude and appreciation.[5]

The commentators note that Rashi provides different explanations for these two instances in which Yaakov demonstrated deference towards Yosef. In the first instance cited above, Rashi explains that Yaakov was showing respect for Yosef as ruler. In the second instance cited, Yaakov was acting with civility and grace. However, Rashi does not explain Yaakov’s deference as a demonstration of respect for his authority.

There are a number of factors that support Rashi’s interpretations. First, in the second instance cited, Yaakov only demonstrated deference after Yosef agreed to his request. He did not rise to greet Yosef when he entered. This suggests that Yaakov’s bow was not one of respect but rather an expression of gratitude. Second, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l points out that in the first instance cited above, the passage states that Yaakov strengthened himself to rise and greet his son. In other words, although Yaakov was weak and near death, he willed himself to rise. This behavior accords with a mandatory expression of respect for a ruler. Civility and grace would not have required a dying, weak father to rise for his son.[6]

However, this raises a new and important question. Why, in the first instance cited, did Yaakov feel that it was necessary to demonstrate respect to Yosef as ruler but in the instance cited second he did not rise to greet him as ruler? Instead, only after Yosef acceded to his request did he bow in gratitude.

4. Yaakov asked his son for an act of kindness and truth

The answer seems to lie in the contexts of the two incidents. In the incident cited second, Yaakov was not addressing Yosef as ruler. He asked for Yosef to fulfill a request that a father naturally makes of his son. He addressed Yosef as his son and he responded to him accordingly. He did not rise to greet his son Yosef. When his son agreed to his request, he bowed in appreciation.

Chizkuni supports this interpretation of the incident. Yaakov describes his request by asking that Yosef swear to perform a service that is both kindness and truth. This is a strange description. If the act is an act of truth – an act of justice, then it is not an act of kindness. Justice requires that Yosef fulfill his father’s wishes. If the act is an act of kindness, then it is not demanded by justice. Chizkuni responds that Yaakov described his request as one for kindness and truth because it included two components. Yaakov was asking that Yosef bury him. Every father has the right to make this demand of his son. This is an act of justice. However, his request to transport him back to Cana’an and to bury him with his fathers was more than a demand for justice. It was a petition for kindness.[7] These comments clearly indicate that Yaakov was speaking to Yosef as his son. He was asking him to fulfill his duties and to show kindness to his father. He was speaking to Yosef in the context of their father-son relationship.

However, the first cited incident is more difficult to understand. In this instance, Yaakov did rise to greet Yosef as ruler. Why did Yaakov regard this incident as an encounter between himself and a ruler?

And now your two sons that were born to you in the Land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt are mine. Efraim and Menashe will be to me like Reuven and Shimon. (Sefer Beresheit 48:5)

5. Yosef used his authority as ruler to save his people

In the incident first cited, Yaakov addresses Yosef and tells him that Yosef’s sons – Efraim and Menashe – will each be the patriarch of one of the tribes of Bnai Yisrael. The other patriarchs were Yaakov’s children. From among his grandchildren, only Yosef’s sons – Efraim and Menashe – were awarded this status. Chizkuni suggests that they received this special treatment as a reward to their father Yosef. Yosef had rescued his brothers and father from famine. He had created a home for them in Egypt and he had cared for them. He had acted as his family’s patron and protector. As his reward, he was provided with this blessing. Both of his sons would be patriarchs of tribes.[8] Yosef was able to do this because he was ruler of Egypt. In other words, Yaakov bestowed this blessing upon his son as a reward for his behavior as ruler over Egypt. He was acknowledging that Yosef had used his power and authority to protect and sustain his family and further their destiny. He was addressing Yosef not only as his son but also as ruler.

This explains Yaakov’s rising to greet his approaching son. He was preparing to bestow upon Yosef the blessing that his sons would be patriarchs. This blessing was a reward for Yoesf’s conduct in his capacity as ruler. In greeting the ruler, Yaakov rose.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 48:2.
[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 11:8.
[3] Mesechet Avodah Zarah 4a.
[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on SeferBeresheit 47:31.
[5] Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi, Commentary on Rashi, Beresheit 47:31.
[6] Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai MaRan RIZ HaLeyve on the Torah, Parshat VaYeche, note 76.
[7] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on SeferBeresheit 47:29.
[8] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on SeferBeresheit 48:5.