The Origins of Slavery (On the Siyum of My Son on Bereishit)

My eight-year-old son and I just completed the Book of Bereishit, a study we began when he was just four years old. In honor of the occasion, I wanted to share some thoughts which I have been developing over the past few days regarding the ominous final verses of the book.

Prior to Yaakov’s death, at the beginning of Parshat Vayechi (see 48:29-31), Yaakov urges Yosef to commit to performing “a kindness and a truth” by burying Yaakov in the Land of Israel, and more particularly in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah, where his wife Leah, his parents, and his grandparents are all buried. Yaakov reminds Yosef that Ma’arat Hamachpeilah was purchased legally and publicly by Avraham from Efron Ha’chitti. Yosef agrees to do as Yaakov has requested.

Yet a strange series of events unfolds shortly after Yaakov’s death and protracted public mourning period. First, in 50:5, Yosef tells the household of Pharaoh to tell Pharaoh that Yaakov had compelled Yosef to swear that he would bury his father in a grave which he himself had dug and prepared for his own use. Why couldn’t as powerful a figure as Yosef speak to Pharaoh directly? Why does he sound so contrite (“If I have found favor in your eyes …”)? And perhaps most importantly, why does Yosef lie? Yaakov did not ask to be buried in a grave he had dug for himself, but rather in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah.

Continuing the series of surprising events, in 50:7 Yosef is accompanied (or perhaps followed) by all of Pharaoh’s servants and elders, and all of the elders of Egypt. Quite an entourage to escort the father of the Vice President! I imagine if Mike Pence’s father passed away, the Vice President might get a collection of condolence cards from Governors and Senators. But how many would escort the elder Mr. Pence for burial in a foreign country, then remain there an additional seven days (see 50:10 and :14) before returning to their own homes? And this is after a 70-day period (see 50:3) of public mourning by the entire country!

More perplexing details revolve around the journey to bury Yaakov. In 50:8 we are told that Yosef’s own household, his brothers, and his father’s household escorted Yaakov, which is not surprising, but why do we also need to be told that “only their children, their sheep, and their cattle were left behind in the Land of Goshen?” Why didn’t they come, and why do we need to be told that they stayed behind? And then in 50:9 comes a further oddity: The burial party is accompanied by “also chariots, also horsemen – a very intense camp.” Were they preparing for war?!

Maybe so. Bereishit 50:8, in which the children, sheep, and cattle remain behind in Goshen, parallels Pharaoh’s command to Moshe in Shemot 10:8-11 that the sheep, cattle, and children all remain behind while the men go to serve Hashem in the Midbar:


וְכֹל֙ בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאֶחָ֖יו וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו רַ֗ק טַפָּם֙ וְצֹאנָ֣ם וּבְקָרָ֔ם עָזְב֖וּ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ גֹּֽשֶׁן׃


וַיּוּשַׁ֞ב אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְכ֥וּ עִבְד֖וּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־ה’ לָֽנוּ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם יְהִ֨י כֵ֤ן ה’ עִמָּכֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר אֲשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם וְאֶֽת־טַפְּכֶ֑ם רְא֕וּ כִּ֥י רָעָ֖ה נֶ֥גֶד פְּנֵיכֶֽם׃
לֹ֣א כֵ֗ן לְכֽוּ־נָ֤א הַגְּבָרִים֙ וְעִבְד֣וּ אֶת־ה’ כִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ אַתֶּ֣ם מְבַקְשִׁ֑ים וַיְגָ֣רֶשׁ אֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֥י פַרְעֹֽה׃

Further, while it is not clear in our story whether the chariots and horsemen are the property of the Jews or the Egyptians, it is tempting to say the latter on the basis of Shemot 14:9, where Pharaoh’s change of heart compels him to run after the Jews with chariots and horsemen – in nearly identical language to Bereishit 50:9:


וַיַּ֣עַל עִמּ֔וֹ גַּם־רֶ֖כֶב גַּם־פָּרָשִׁ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃


וַיִּרְדְּפ֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיַּשִּׂ֤יגוּ אוֹתָם֙ חֹנִ֣ים עַל־הַיָּ֔ם כָּל־סוּס֙ רֶ֣כֶב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וּפָרָשָׁ֖יו וְחֵיל֑וֹ עַל־פִּי֙ הַֽחִירֹ֔ת לִפְנֵ֖י בַּ֥עַל צְפֹֽן׃

The funeral of Yaakov then seems to take two forms in the succeeding pesukim. In 50:10, the expanded burial party reaches the border of Egypt and Israel, where they stop and mourn Yaakov for seven days. But then in 50:12-13, the sons, apparently sans Yosef, accompany Yaakov to Ma’arat Hamachpeilah for his actual burial. Why does the rest of the burial party remain on the border of Egypt and Israel (with the chariots and horsemen) while only the remaining sons of Yaakov actually go to bury their father in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah?

Putting all of the clues together, perhaps we can suggest that the period of slavery had already begun. Even Yosef was not allowed free movement, which explains his need to beseech Pharaoh, indirectly, for some time off, and his making up a story which would be more palatable to the Egyptians, given their custom of burying people in a way which would appease one’s god (link). As the seven years of famine are over, Yosef seems to have his position in name only: Although Pharaoh acquiesces to Yosef’s leaving, he sends an army battalion with him to ensure that he and the other Jews return, also ensured by his requiring them to leave behind their property and children, a tactic repeated in Shemot.

Upon reaching the border of Israel, Yosef and the brothers are conflicted. Pharaoh has called Yosef’s bluff and sent along a full cadre of messengers to ensure that he really is just going to bury Yaakov in his own grave, but this is not what they had ever actually intended to do. Hence the double funeral. During the seven days of mourning on the border of Egypt and Israel, the eleven brothers slip off from the much larger group to bury Yaakov in Ma’arat Hamachpeilah, which is probably about a seven-day round-trip journey by camel from the Egyptian border. (Google Maps says it’s a 54-hour walk or four hours by bike.) Upon their return from the secret mission to fulfill their father’s actual wish, all return to Egypt together.

The significance of all of this is that with the passing of Yaakov, the slavery has begun in earnest. The Jews (including Yosef) are no longer trusted to go and come as they please, even for a brief return to their homeland right across the border. Notice that Yosef seems to be aware of the even greater difficulty his brothers would face returning his own body to Israel, as the wall closes in on the Jews, instructing them as the curtain closes on the book of Bereishit only that at some future date his bones (not his body) be returned to Israel:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו אָנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וֵֽאלֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיַּשְׁבַּ֣ע יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה׃

Yosef twice tells his brothers that, at some point in the future, Hashem will remember them and that it is only at that time that his bones should be returned to Israel. How sad that the one-time savior of the entire Land of Egypt, after having first been reduced to an honorific, an untrusted figurehead, now must admit to his own brothers – they who once bowed down to him as a king and savior – that the ruse is up, the match is played, the gratitude of a nation has turned to ambivalence and scorn.

Commenting on the shamed-faced way in which Yosef approaches Pharaoh to seek permission to bury his father, Rav Hirsch writes that in truth the Egyptians were never fully comfortable with the foreigner Yosef as their leader. Naturally distrustful of outsiders, it could not have been a source of pride that their nation was saved and semi-ruled by a destitute Cana’ani slave-boy. Surely the entrance of Yosef’s foreign father and brothers into the story only serves to cramp his style, as he is forced to advise them on how to live and how to approach Pharaoh regarding their living conditions (see 46:31-47:6), further accentuating Yosef’s foreignness. As the book comes to a close and Yosef is no longer economically useful, his gig comes to an end as the noose is tightened on the neck of the nascent Jewish nation. He dies, is embalmed, and is placed in a box (50:26), but we are not told of any national mourning, and his posthumous return to the land of his fathers is forestalled by the slavery which has already begun at the hand of a nation he thought he knew.

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1 Response to The Origins of Slavery (On the Siyum of My Son on Bereishit)

  1. Ari says:

    What a fascinating review of the geopolitical procession of the decline of the era of Yosef Hatzadik in Egypt. This puts the verse about Pharoah “not knowing Yosef” in to valuable perspective.

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