I’ve been working on a piece, off and on for a while now, about how Rashi sets the whole tone of Sefer Bereishit by his definitive mention of how G-d gives the Land of Israel to whomever he wants. In short, G-d sets the stage for how He will do things in the rest of the book, since the Torah is neither just a book of laws nor is it a history book. But everything that is there is for a reason.
So with this in mind, I have come up with a very satisfactory reason (to me, I mean) of why there is this odd mention of the things that the caravaners are bringing with them down to Egypt from last week’s parashah, Vayetze.
|כה וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט–הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה.||25 And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.|
It’s a good example of Chekhov’s gun–or should I say that Chekhov’s gun is a good example of the sparseness of the Torah. Nothing extraneous. Here Rashi gives the reason for these Ishmaelites bringing these three items is that poor Yosef will at least not be overwhelmed by the bad smells of the items that they usually bring, which wouldn’t be fit for such a tzaddik. Um, he clearly was not yet a tzaddik. And this is the first clue that Rashi is not correct here. I once again credit Aryeh Kaplan’s translation with the three items being in their raw form, not transformed into the finished products. One of the terms (I don’t have a copy in the house, so this is from my somewhat poor memory) is resin, but also all the items were used in the manufacture of perfumes.
(Side point: we were in a toy store looking for a good teething toy for our littlest one and we were reintroduced to Sophie the giraffe, which is made out of resin, a natural product. Cue into the words of the parshah now, please.)
What this means is that they were bringing all kinds of raw materials to Egypt, including Yosef, who needed to mature into the leader he would become. He was not that yet.
What’s perhaps even more interesting, then, happens later on, when it is time for Yaakov to allow the brothers to go back to Mitzrayim with Binyamin, he insists that they take a little something (even though there’s no food, remember) representing Eretz Yisrael:
|יא וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲבִיהֶם, אִם-כֵּן אֵפוֹא זֹאת עֲשׂוּ–קְחוּ מִזִּמְרַת הָאָרֶץ בִּכְלֵיכֶם, וְהוֹרִידוּ לָאִישׁ מִנְחָה: מְעַט צֳרִי, וּמְעַט דְּבַשׁ, נְכֹאת וָלֹט, בָּטְנִים וּשְׁקֵדִים.||11 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;|
Here it is clearly the finished products that are being sent, so does Yaakov know something subliminally about the finished product of his son who sits in the palace in Egypt?