As the famine persists, Jacob's sons realize that they must return to Egypt for additional provisions. Jacob is reluctant to send his sons back. He is fearful for their lives and uncertain about their safe return. As they prepare to leave, they inform their father of their need to take their youngest brother, Benjamin, with them. When he refuses, his sons tell him of their dealings with the Egyptian viceroy. In the course of the conversation, Jacob learns that his sons had, indeed, told the viceroy of their younger brother who remained in Canaan with their father. Jacob is angry and wants to know what prompted them to do this. His sons explain that the viceroy barraged them with questions, and they chose not to lie. They told the viceroy two things about their family: their father was alive, and their younger brother remained in Canaan with their father. Finally, with assurances from Judah that he would be responsible for Benjamin's well-being and safety, Jacob advises his sons about what to take with them and what to bring as gifts for the viceroy.
Noteworthy are Jacob's instructions in Genesis 43:11: K'chu mizimrat haaretz bichleichem, "Take from among the land's choice products in your bags."Most of the commentators say the phrase mizimrat haaretz refers to things of a quality worthy of praise or "melody," zemer. Rashi notes that in the Targum this is rendered as "that which is praised in the land,"and he adds, "that about which people sing its praise [ m'zamrim ] when it comes into existence"(A. M. Silbermann, Chumash with Rashi's Commentary: Bereishit [Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1934], p. 214). The root word zemer,zayin?mem?reish, coupled with the last word of the phrase, bichleichem, raises the possibility of an interesting double entendre. While bichleichem can be understood as referring to their gear or luggage, an alternate translation is "with [or in] their instruments."A translation of the phrase might focus on Jacob saying to his sons, "Take with you [from] the melody of the land along with your instruments."
Jacob's sons are going to foreign territory, so he wants to be sure that they take their own cultural heritage with them. While they can produce any kind of music on their instruments, their father instructs them to take the song of their land with them, first and foremost.
"Take the song of the land along with your instruments." Jacob, perhaps, understands that songs are, at one and the same time, transportable and rooted. Centuries later, the exiles in Babylonia would have benefited from this insight as they sat by the waters of Babylon lamenting, "How can we sing God's song in a foreign land?"(Psalm 137:4).
At a nursing home where I used to work, we had services every Friday afternoon for Kabbalat Shabbat. The residents, in their varying degrees of physical and mental decline, were wheeled into the room we used for services. People who were unable to participate in conversations, as well as people who were unable to orient themselves to person, place, or time, were able to connect to the music of prayer and sing along. The words, the tunes, were a part of them, and as their lips moved, a light of recognition and connection shone in their eyes and in their faces. They were in that moment of music and, at the same time, so far removed from it that it would have been impossible to call them back. As Debbie Friedman's interpretation of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav's prayer expresses it, all would sing their souls through the long-familiar Ur tunes of their lives.
Perhaps Jacob sends his sons off with their instruments and these instructions because he wants to ensure that they will not lose their connection to the songs of their land, their people. If they continue to play them, they will long for their country and their families and dream of their own safe return. Or, perhaps, Jacob is intrigued by the conversation that his sons related to him. Who is this man in Egypt who asked specifically about his sons' father and brother, this man who inquired about whether or not their father was still alive? The questions were certainly unusual, particularly coming from a man of such stature. Perhaps if his sons go down to Egypt and play their instruments and sing the song of the land from which they come, this man will respond positively. Perhaps they will evoke some chord of recognition and pleasure in him. Perhaps they will reveal his true nature.
Rabbi Leizer survived the death camps and returned to his hometown, Czenstochow, Poland. For years following the Shoah, he roamed the streets playing a hand organ. At regular intervals, amid the numerous tunes he played, he would intentionally play Kol Nidrei. As he did so, he would look into the eyes of the children who walked by, looking for a hint of recognition. In this way, he was able to bring many children back in contact with their people (as told in Corinne da Fonseca-Wolheim, "The Soul Breath of Kol Nidre," Jewish World Digest , September 20, 2006).
All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune that we have not heard in a long time and finding ourselves transported back to a time and place long removed from our current circumstances. Some tunes, some notes, resonate so deeply that they evoke a profound sense of coming home or being at home. They bring tears to our eyes and give us an intense sense of belonging.
What are the tunes that speak to our lives? Are they the songs that reveal who we are?
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at HUC-JIR, New York. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.