JC Sidra Column: Vayechi

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 December 2013

Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, just as he made you promise on oath”
Genesis 50:6

Why did Pharaoh allow Joseph to leave Egypt so easily?  Was he not worried that Joseph would not return, would set up an alternative power base in Canaan?  Was he not offended that burial in Egypt was somehow not good enough for the father of his second-in command?

The charitable reading of the text is that Pharaoh had simply come to trust and understand Joseph; that he knew Joseph would return, felt no threat or slight.  Or, perhaps, Pharaoh was just showing human decency in honouring the last wish of a dying man?  This is not the understanding of the Sages.  According to one Talmudic tale (Sotah 36b), Pharaoh’s response is not an act of decency but of expediency.  Years previously, on being appointed to his position in the court, Joseph had made an oath to Pharaoh not to reveal embarrassing information about him to the world.  While Joseph, with divine aid, had mastered the 70 languages of the world in addition to his knowledge of Hebrew, Pharoah knew only seventy, with the holy tongue still escaping him.  If Pharaoh asked Joseph to break the new oath he had made to his father, then his old oath to Pharaoh would also be threatened.

This is not merely the creative imagination of the Sages at play.  It reflects their general worldview, which was realistic about how power was exercised in the court system.  It also reveals the Sages relationship with Torah – their refusal to see the bible as straightforward, their refusal to reduce biblical characters to simplistic role models for behaviour.  And it also expresses an important underlying message about the power of a promise.  Once one promise is broken, none can be relied upon.  The minute Joseph ceased to be a man of his word, he could no longer be trusted.  Better to let Joseph go than to undermine his integrity.