Fruits of the Land, Song of the Soil

Miketz | Hanukkah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 12, 2012 / 5773

The Joseph narrative continues its dramatic twists and turns as Joseph, through his talented dream interpretations, rises to become the second most powerful figure in the land of Egypt. More than that, he choreographs a masterful plan to save Egypt from a devastating and prolonged famine, and he becomes no less than a hero and savior to the Egyptian people. As Joseph’s fortunes turn for the good, those of his family back in the land of Canaan take a turn for the worse. Severe famine plagues the land, and with it, Jacob turns to his remaining sons and urges them to make the long journey to Egypt to procure food. The brothers listen, journey to the south, find themselves accused of being spies (through a ruse executed by Joseph), return to Israel, and tell Jacob of the Egyptian ruler’s demand to see Benjamin. Jacob acquiesces and tells his sons, as they are about to depart, “If it must be so, do this: take some of the choice products of the land (zimrat ha’aretz) in your baggage, and carry them down as a gift for the man–some balm and some honey, gum, ladanum, pistachio nuts, and almonds” (Gen. 43:11). Clearly, from the peshat (literal sense of the text), Jacob sought to appease a disgruntled Egyptian ruler so as to find favor in his eyes and protect his sons from the ruler’s wrath. Is there another way of understanding Jacob’s suggestion?

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav offers a very different reading of our verse. He writes,

When Torah teaches, “take some of zimrat ha’aretz in your baggage,” it does not refer to fruits of the land. Rather, the verse is saying, “take with you the song of the land of Israel,” take a tune or melody from its soil. And then, when you arrive in the land of Egypt, sing to yourselves that very same song from Israel and you will remember from where you came and the essence of your homeland and your birthplace. (HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat [in Hebrew], 42)

Although our chosen commentator makes a radical departure from the literal sense of our verse, his reading is poetic and insightful. Through the many dispersions of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel, it is song that has often been the bridge connecting them to their roots and powerful memories of home and of history. Too often, we underestimate the power of music. Melodies, songs, and hymns all have a mystical way of taking the listener on a journey. Musical composition moves the heart, jogs the memory, and awakens the soul. So perhaps, at the end of the day, Jacob knew precisely what he intended. Not only did he encourage his sons to bring gifts to the Egyptian vizier, but he also gifted his descendants with strength and tzeidah la’derekh (provisions for the way). Both the fruits of their land and the song of the soil would ensure that their roots remain firm, even when wandering far from home.

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