By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“Take of the land’s choice produce in your baggage, and bring it down to the man as a tribute — a bit a balsam, a bit of honey, wax, lotus, pistachios, and almonds” (Bereishit 43:11).
This tribute sent by Yaakov’s sons is the final outright praise we see of the Land of Israel until the Jewish People reach Egypt, become entrenched there, and are enslaved. There they are promised that G-d will bring them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Sh’mot 3:17).
Several questions arise about this tribute. Why is there an emphasis on (at least regarding the balsam and honey) the small quantity sent? Wouldn’t it have been appropriate to send a respectable amount to the powerful Egyptian viceroy? Also, in contrast to the great detail regarding the contents of the offering, its receipt is barely mentioned. This is in stark contrast with offerings we find in other contexts, such as the one Yaakov sends Eisav. Here we see a greater significance in the actual sending of the offering by Yaakov than its receipt by Yosef.
It seems that the sending of the offering was more than an attempt to placate the seemingly ruthless ruler. Yaakov wanted to convey a message. He saw here a struggle between the culture of Cana’an and that of Egypt. Life in the Land of Cana’an was much less stable. Droughts were common as a result of the local climate, marked by a heavy dependence on rainfall. In Egypt, in contrast, farming relied on a much more stable source of irrigation— the Nile. The waters of one of the largest rivers of the world is Egypt’s lifeline, which provides much greater stability in providing food to Egyptian’s populace and (as we see in our parashah) to the rest of the countries in the region. In general, it seems that famine was a rarity in Egypt, as seen in other instances, where it fared better and had more resources than Cana’an.
The situation in Cana’an might be less economically stable, but precisely because of this it facilitates — even necessitates — a direct connection with G-d, something that the Egyptians might view as unnecessary. It seems that Yaakov believed that Egypt’s viceroy wanted to hint at Egypt’s supremacy over Cana’an. Life in Egypt was far more stable, making it possible to sustain a large population for an extended period of time, in stark contrast to the precarious situation in Cana’an. Yaakov interpreted the money returned to his sons together with their sacks of grain as the Egyptian viceroy saying: “I don’t need your money; just admit that the situation in Egypt is much better than the fragile conditions in Cana’an, and that you, the family of Yaakov (who was famous in the area since the times of Avraham Avinu, who was considered an “Official of G-d”), who views your environmental conditions in Cana’an as optimal, confess that you have failed in your message to the world.”
Yaakov may have believed that this cultural clash was the basis for the grounds for suspicion as spies. While Yaakov’s sons might not represent a political entity, they do represent a culture in bitter conflict with Egypt’s. As an answer to the Egyptian ruler, Yaakov sends the choice products of the land of Cana’an. In doing so, he hints that while Cana’an might not be stable in its staples, it still boasts excellent produce beyond basic sustenance. This is true not only in a physical sense, but primarily in a spiritual sense. In Egypt, perhaps one can survive, but is this everything that man can hope to achieve? To be an animal walking on two legs?!
A basic spiritual existence is possible even outside the Land of Israel; lofty levels of closeness to G-d can only be attained in the Land of prophecy. When the residents of the Land of Israel are on the appropriate spiritual level, basic physical sustenance is also provided abundantly, and much more than that. This is why Yaakov sends a small quantity: perhaps the Land of Israel doesn’t boast the abundance of Egypt, but what it has is of a much higher quality and has a much higher potential, both physical and spiritual. This is also the reason that for the Egyptian viceroy (whose identity we know) the offering is not very significant, since he is intimately familiar with all of these ideas.
Actions And Not Ideas
It could be that Yosef “played the game” here, too. He wanted to bring his brothers to the realization that just as the Land of Israel is destined to be theirs, the expectation of them is also that much higher. It is true that in regular circumstances, when one brother is preferred, it causes the very human feeling of jealousy. However, they are expected to rise above this, to contemplate the matter and understand that jealousy is inappropriate, since “a person cannot touch anything prepared for his fellow even the slightest bit.” The offering did not make such an impact on Yosef, since he knew that his brothers were familiar with the concept; the question was, though, whether or not they internalized it.
The favoritism shown first to Yosef is shown now to Binyamin—both by Yaakov, who initially refuses to send him down to Egypt, and by Yosef before his revelation. The whole affair with the goblet, found in Binyamin’s satchel, was also meant to test the brothers if they would instinctively blame Binyamin (as do people who do not internalize this lesson) or if they would be able to accept the situation without pointing fingers. The brothers pass all of these tests with flying colors, and prove that the concept latent in the offering did not stay in the realm of ideas, but was very much applied in practice.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email email@example.com or call 972-8-684-7325.