This week’s parasha has the ברכות that Yaakov gives to his sons. They are very poetic and hard to understand. I want to look at the ברכה for Yosef:
Artscroll takes its translation from Rashi:
And Rashi’s problem with the last verse is that קשת can’t be literal; Yosef never goes to war, never wields a bow. So it’s a metaphor for strength.
And the expression אביר יעקב, ”the Mighty Power of Jacob“, appears in תנ״ך as a description of ה׳:
But what is “the stone of Israel”? We’re used to calling ה׳ a metaphoric rock (think מעוז צור), but here Yosef is the רועה, the shepherd, of that rock. So אבן ישראל must refer to the people of Israel. It’s not parallel to אביר יעקב. Ibn Ezra makes it a metaphor like “the meat of the matter”:
Ramban connects it to
Sforno says אביר יעקב is the strength of Yaakov himself, and that gave Yosef the strength to survive the וימררהו ורבו, and then to support in turn the אבן ישראל, with אבן being a metaphor for value or permanence:
But the Rashbam takes אבן in a completely different way. It’s a collective noun for “family”; “fatherland” without the “land”. In modern Hebrew the word would be עם.
It is how Onkelos translates it:
The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (I like sounding smart by saying that) puts the two meanings of אבן together:
The idea that Yaakov is speaking about Yosef’s survival in Egypt, and that it goes from the strength of his father to supporting his family and being engraved on the חשן המשפט, is made concrete in a well-known gemara:
I’m hesitant to translate the following, because it takes תשב באיתן קשתו as a very explicit metaphor:
Let’s go back and look at what led up to that incident:
His initial resistance was twofold: betraying his master and betraying הקב״ה. But it wasn’t enough. Rabbi Shulman makes the point that, in the eyes of the gemara, the only thing that holds him back is the vision of his father threatening him that he will no longer be part of his family. He will give up, both figuratively and literally, being part of אבן ישראל.
Why? Because he could have accepted the ethical system of Egypt, and in that society, having an affair with his master would be OK. I’m sure אשת פוטיפר had many trysts with good looking slaves before. It was the done thing.
The midrash says that פוטיפר just wanted Yosef for himself:
And when we read the text closely, what upset פוטיפר was not anything that Yosef had done, but the fact that his wife was publicly declaring it, making him a laughingstock:
Yosef was in exile, expelled from his family. He could have accepted the Egyptian definition of morality (they were two consenting adults, after all), and just been a good Egyptian.
The names he gives his children reflect that option:
But when push came to shove, he decided that he was still part of כנסת ישראל. What allowed him to become the רעה אבן ישראל is that he is still part of אבן ישראל, the family of Israel. Jewish nationhood is not tied to land (or even genetics) but to values. And Yosef, because of אביר יעקב, the strength of Yaakov, still kept those values.