Joseph’s Brothers Prostrated Themselves – Are We? (Bereshit 42:1-7)
I grew up believing that Jews bow down only to the One God, our Creator, and never to another human being. The Purim story tells us that Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, an act that began the chain of events that led to Haman’s own humiliation and death. Yet, upon reaching Egypt, Joseph’s brothers prostrated themselves before him as was the custom of the time. Was this forbidden?
Prostration in Biblical Times
We learn, in fact, that Abraham bowed to his three guests, Moshe bowed to his father-in-law, many bowed to King David.
Therefore, there is no prohibition to bowing to a another person out of respect. Furthermore, Jews are allowed to bow before other people when it is the custom of the land. This implies that the Jew can distinguish between prostration as a sign of respect and prostration as an act of worship. The former is permissible and the latter, which would constitute idol worship, is forbidden. Therefore, Mordechai did not have “religious” reasons for refusing to bow before Haman (you can read more about this in this excellent commentary on the Megillah) and his refusal was all the more significant for that reason.Joseph’s brothers’ act of prostration, therefore, was permissible and expected. However, I wonder how much fear, rather than respect, was behind their kneeling down before him. Would fear not render this act one closer to a kind of worship than to respect? After all, they were in Egypt because of famine and they needed to be successful in their pleas to Joseph, who they did not yet recognize. Their lives depended on it.
Different Meanings of Prostration
Bowing down in a positive sense can be understood in three different ways: Bowing to God’s will. Bowing to other people out of respect. Bowing to circumstance.
But the brothers saw only humiliation in the prostration before Joseph that took place in the dream he naively shared with them. It certainly can be humiliating if it is a kind of acquiescence and results from — and in — a loss of self-respect. Remember, they were consumed with jealousy over his special relationship with their father.
For me, bowing to circumstance means understanding that my life path is going to present me with situations in which I will need to make difficult choices. What I decide will lead me to other choice points, some of which will be remarkably similar to the feared situation I had tried to avoid earlier, as Joseph’s brothers discovered. This, I believe, is God’s will.
In other words, we are sometimes re-dealt the very cards we attempted to hide under the table (or throw into a pit or sell off to traders headed south). Bowing to circumstance, then, can mean accepting that which cannot be avoided and trying to learn a life lesson from each instance of this kind.
Acts of Respect Versus Acts of Worship
A condition that would allow bowing to others to constitute an act of respect and not one of worship or fear is a clean conscience, difficult as that is to achieve. All of us have made mistakes that have hurt other people, unintentional as that hurt may have been (and sometimes it was quite intentional).
Joseph’s brothers almost certainly felt guilt for having sold him off, whether or not they still gave it much thought. It is possible that guilt led Joseph’s brothers to bow to his demand to leave Shimon behind and to bring Benjamin back with them, even though it appeared that he had caught them in thievery.
Men who carry no guilt would, I think, have responded differently. Innocent individuals do not give up a loved one just because the other person demands it, whatever justifications and rationalizations may be offered and do not admit to wrongdoing they had not committed. They had no guarantees Shimon and Benjamin would not be hurt. Joseph’s brothers were lucky that it was Joseph before whom they scraped and prostrated themselves; another man in this position may have turned them into slaves! They were that vulnerable.
I cannot help but think of the issues facing us today – the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, the Iran deal, the Syrian and other refugees flooding Europe. How much are global leaders successfully navigating the narrow and dangerous rapids where the waters surge around rocks representing self-respect, self-preservation, capitulation, appeasement and founded and unfounded trust and faith? Are some world leaders selling their nation to traders headed south? Have some of them thrown their people into a pit? And are some bowing to adversaries out of self-respect and other-respect or out of appeasement borne of a legitimate or misguided sense of guilt?
If these leaders sell us, or even only some of us, down the river, we have to hope that we will not all enter 400 years of slavery before another Moses comes along to give us another chance at self-determination.