Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, do this: take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage, and carry them down as a gift for the man — a little balm and a little honey, gum, ladanum, pistachio nuts, and almonds…and may El-Shaddai dispose the man to mercy towards you, that he may release to you your other brother as well as Benjamin.” (Bereishit 43:11-13).
Take the song your mother hummed as
she cradled you on moonlit nights
while the gentle scent of blossom
skimmed the silent land.
Take the harmonies of harvesters
as they reach for glowing fruit
dangling from laden boughs
beneath the azure sky.
Take the riffs the shepherds sing
backed by the lilt of rugged flocks,
champing on the unploughed turf
in pastures splashed by sun.
Take the sound of dripping rain
permeating dried-up earth,
trickling in rivulets
on every blade of grass.
Parashat Miketz continues the narrative of Joseph’s fate in Egypt. He becomes second only to Pharaoh, and as the King’s dreams come true, Joseph oversees the stockpiling of grain in the years of plenty and its distribution once the famine strikes. And back in Canaan, when the famine threatens the welfare of Jacob’s family, he sends his all of his remaining sons, excepting Benjamin, to buy grain. Joseph immediately recognises his brothers, but he himself has changed beyond all recognition, and comports himself unrecognised by them. The story is familiar: he treats them harshly, accusing them of being spies. We learn that when he hears their self-recriminations and remorse, he turns aside and weeps, but betrays no emotion to them. He imprisons Simeon as a hostage pending their return with their youngest brother Benjamin, to corroborate their story and verify that they are honest men. He sends them away with grain, but orders that the money they paid be secreted in each brother’s sack. They return to their father and relate how harsh the vizier has been and Jacob is adamant that he will not send Benjamin. However, once the famine becomes so severe that the family’s well-being is threatened, the brothers cajole Jacob to send Benjamin and Judah says he will guarantee the safe return of the lad. At this point, Jacob capitulates, but tells them “Kechu mizimrat h’aretz bichlechem vehoridu la’ish mincha… – take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage as a gift for the man.” The phrase for “choice products – zimrat h’aretz” is literally “the song of the land” and of course this unusual expression arouses the interest of the commentators.
The connection between fruits and song is a rather significant theme in Jewish agriculture. As noted in Mishnah Bikkurim, the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem in the days of the Temple was accompanied by music.
In a commentary on Miketz from the Bar-Ilan University series Daf Shevui (no. 373), http://www.biu.ac.il/jh/parasha/miketz/kle.html, Dr Yosef Klein addresses this phrase. He quotes Rashi (citing the Targum) who explains that the product was to be the finest in the land so that people would “sing its praises”
R’ Sa’adiah Gaon suggests that the gift contained substances with healing properties, as the word for “balm – tseri” appears in the book of Jeremiah with that connotation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef Isser concurs and suggests that this would be an appropriate gift for the vizier of Egypt – otherwise he suggests the gift would not seem to have much value.
Dr Klein cites a previous commentary on Miketz from the same series (Daf Shevui no. 317) http://www.biu.ac.il/jh/parasha/miketz/hal.html, by Dr Yair Halevi who points out that there is a serious difficulty regarding Jacob’s proposed gift: Jacob knows that this ruler is second to the Pharaoh; he is in charge of all the provisions in the land; and furthermore he is a tough man – and Jacob hopes to appease him with a small gift?! We also know that Jacob has experience in giving conciliatory gifts: he appeased Esau with an impressive gift of flocks and herds, and here he hopes to appease the ruler with a handful of pistachio nuts? Dr HaLevi cites the Sforno who suggests that Jacob knows that the ruler needs nothing valuable in monetary terms, so the quantity is immaterial, but the quality is important – something that is not available in Egypt, but unique to the land of Israel. So he sends a gift that he hopes the ruler will appreciate and his heart might soften towards them.
Rabbi Chaim Vital theorises that the gift contained incense.
Dr Klein submits that this might explain the change in Joseph’s attitude to his brothers: at first, when he recognises them but does not reveal himself, he speaks harshly and imprisons them for three days and the Torah does not tell us of any internal emotional turmoil. Then he hears them reproaching themselves and he weeps in secret but still treats them harshly and sends them away. When they return, he sees Benjamin, but no emotional change is apparent: he sends his steward to organise that the brothers will join him for lunch. The brothers arrive, frightened, to Joseph’s house and are brought inside, where, we are told, they lay out the gifts and await Joseph’s arrival at noon. When he arrives, they present him with the gifts and bow down to him.
Now the Torah reports that he sees Benjamin (again) – “And he lifted up his eyes and saw Benjamin, his mother’s son…” (Bereishit 43:29) and he says, “May God be gracious to you, my boy,” and rushes out on the verge of tears. He weeps alone, washes his face and goes back in to the meal.
The sages wonder, what changed between those two times when he saw Benjamin? In the morning, he saw him and shed no tears. At the noon meeting, he wept. Dr Klein suggests that the one thing that changed, was the gift. The first two items listed in the gift, the balm and the honey were components of the incense in the temple, and were described in the Talmud as having an irresistible scent. Dr Klein notes that when Jacob finally agreed to let his sons return to Egypt with Benjamin, he said to the brothers, “…and may El-Shaddai dispose the man to mercy towards you, that he may release to you your other brother as well as Benjamin.” (Bereishit 43:13). And we first hear that Joseph’s mercies were stirred, after the gift had been laid out. The Talmud describes how the fragrance of just a small amount of incense would linger in the air. So Dr Klein proposes that the metamorphosis of Joseph from alienated and exalted ruler, to merciful brother who is able to “lift up his eyes and see” – a more far-sighted vision that internalises his brothers’ remorse, and can imagine his afflicted father who has let go of his youngest boy – the last relic of his beloved wife, all this occurred under the influence of the “choice gift” – the incense that Jacob sent.
Professor Shalom Rosenberg proposes a more literal explanation, taking the suggestion of Rashi one step further, based on the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who says, “You should know that when Jacob our father sent his sons, the ten tribes to Joseph, he sent with them the melody of the land, of Israel. And this is the secret: Take of the song of the land in your baggage.” ” (Likkutei Moharan Batra 73) Rabbi Nachman developed this idea in his “Song of the Grasses”.
Rabbi Nachman connects the words with those in Bereishit 4:20 describing the birth of music: Ada’s first son Yaval is a shepherd while her second son Yuval, is the father of those who play the lyre and the pipe. Thus R’ Nachman connects the shepherd with the music lover. He says the music of the shepherd finds its source in the grasses while the grasses hear the music and grow to feed the flocks.
Rabbi Nachman’s “Song of the Grasses” was rendered by Naomi Shemer, the iconic Israeli songwriter, into a well-known song, translated here:
Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.
Know that each and every grass has its own song.
And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made
How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their song.
It’s very good to pray among them and to serve God in joy
And from the song of the grasses the heart is filled and yearns.
And when the the heart is filled by the song and yearns for the Land of Israel
a great light is drawn forth and goes from the Land’s holiness unto it.
And from the song of the grasses the tune of the heart is made.
And here is a recording of Naomi Shemer’s song, sung by Shuli Rand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-6m6CKOdC4&index=3&list=RDe1gLJYm-3Nk.