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Modernity Starts Here

“And Yisrael bowed down on the head of the bed.” Genesis 47:31   Jacob sits on his deathbed; his feet, one thinks, must be on the floor. He is speaking to his favorite son, Joseph, who sits nearby, perhaps at the foot of the bed. Despite the press of time, Joseph betrays no impatience. He could, it seems, sit quietly all afternoon.

Jacob says, “Please do not bury me [here] in Mitzrayim.” He wants his bones carried back to Canaan, the land he left when he fled Esau’s wrath, that he returned to after escaping Laban, then left again when Joseph and famine summoned him to Egypt. He wants to return a final time to be buried “with my fathers.”

Joseph assures him he will “do as you say,” but that is not enough for Jacob. He says, “Swear to me.” Joseph swears. Then Israel bows down on the head of the bed.

What are we to make of this bowing? Rabbi Joseph Hirsch tells us that Jacob is “bending backward” in adoration and thanksgiving to God, who has granted him this final request. But, in fact, it is not God who has granted the request; it is Joseph.

A moment earlier (Genesis 47:29), Jacob had begun the conversation by saying, “If I have found favor in your eyes…” It is a commonplace phrase, rhetorical boilerplate of the period, yet it rings somehow strange when a father says it to his son. Can one imagine Abraham worrying whether he has “found favor” with Isaac? A trickster like Laban uses the expression when Jacob comes asking for his freedom and wages. So when Jacob employs it here, it reminds us of his own cunning.

He is being clever, sly; he is attempting to flatter and ingratiate himself with his own child; or, to put it another way, he is not sure to whom he is speaking, his child or the vice regent of Egypt. One of them he knows and loves; the other is a stranger he cannot trust.

No wonder he does not want to be buried here, where he and his entire family live at the boy’s indulgence, their sheaves bowing to his after all. Joseph has become of necessity head of the family, father to all of them, including his father. Even Isaac, blind, dying and deceived, remained the father. But Jacob is just an addendum, a superfluous figure. Perhaps he is dying of irrelevance.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s brothers find themselves in awe of his power, grateful for his generosity and unable to believe that he harbors no plans for revenge. But, then, the brothers could never fathom this interpreter of dreams, manager of national economies, favorite of women and men. His miraculous destiny — that God was with him in all ways — which they once hated, they now fear. And need.

Jacob never feared or hated it; he recognized in the boy’s genius a version of his own capacity for summoning ladders and angels, speckled and spotted flocks. But now he, too, needs Joseph, and resents needing him. And, feeling at a disadvantage, he falls back on mistrust and cunning. “If I have found favor in your eyes, would you be so kind, my beloved son….” He needs not just a promise but also an oath. And only when Joseph swears can Yisrael finally bow down on the head of the bed.

He bows, then, not in exultation and thanksgiving but to hide his tears, his shame, his relief, his incomprehension that here at the end of his life, his days still “few and unhappy,” he has no real hold on his favorite son (or so he fears), that all the bonds that once held him have loosened, even broken. This double humiliation (supplicating Joseph and yielding to his own mistrust) is the sorry pass his life has come to.

When he asks himself how this could be, all he can think of is Egypt. Not simply the land of Mitzrayim, but the very fact of a nation-state, this brand-new thing that Joseph has created and rules over, means that the deep link between parent and child has become irrelevant, impossible. In Egypt, the world of Abraham and Isaac, of patriarchs and even matriarchs, is vanishing before his eyes.

If Joseph had been sold into slavery, Jacob tells himself, then reappeared, head of a vast family, larger and richer than his own, he could have accepted that. But the scale of Egypt is too great; he could comprehend hundreds, but millions are beyond him, a mighty mountain whose summit he cannot even see, much less climb. The very thought makes him tremble; it is a beast that swallows whole tribes, reducing them to a few dots seen from an impossible height. In a world of millions, there could be no such thing as a patriarch, or even, really, a man.

He dimly saw that these vast numbers (which he could neither read nor write, which he could not understand even when they were explained slowly) were a most terrible invention. The thing they brought into being was the future, and the future itself was a number, one that no one could even pronounce, like the name of God, though without the holiness. And he bowed down to the head of the bed and closed his eyes.

Henry Bean’s new film, “The Rectifier,” will be released this year.

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