Ambiguous Statements II
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
"Perhaps it was an oversight on their part." (Bereshith 43:12)
At this point, Yaakov was still unaware that his sons had been dealing
with Yosef, and not an Egyptian Minister. This being the case, we must
understand why Yaakov used this particular phrasing. The word “perhaps”
seems to indicate that he had considered the possibility that the money
might have been returned to his sons’ sacks intentionally. Yet if Yaakov
was not aware that Yosef had ordered the money returned to his brothers,
why would it have occurred to him that the money had come to their sacks
Yaakov was following the advice of our Sages: one should accustom himself
to say, “I don’t know (1).” In this case, Yaakov’s words proved to be
factually accurate. Since the money had purposely been returned to his
sons’ sacks, Yaakov was correct that perhaps it was an oversight – indeed,
it was no accident (2).
On the same note, when Moshe Rabbeinu informed Pharaoh and his ministers
of the tenth plague that God would bring upon the Egyptian nation, he said
that it would occur approximately at midnight. Although God had told Moshe
that it would take place precisely at midnight, Moshe was afraid that the
Egyptians would miscalculate the time, even if only slightly, and that he
would appear to be a liar (3). Even though the truth would quickly become
revealed to them when God brought the plague, falsehood was so repugnant
in the eyes of Moshe Rabbeinu, he did not want to be considered a liar
even for a second (4).
However, since most people do not accept every detail of other people’s
words at face value, we may ask if it was really neccesary for Moshe
to “adjust” God’s words. The answer is that in this case the consequences
of a small misunderstanding would have been extremely great. Although
Pharaoh’s ministers had initially doubted the truth of Moshe’s words,
after the third plague they began to recognize that Moshe was a true
messenger of God. Moshe feared that if they would discover a “mistake” in
his words regarding the last plague, they would doubt the veracity of all
the preceeding heavenly signs, and God’s name would not have been
1. Brachoth 4a.
2. Titein Emeth L’Yaakov (commentary of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky on
3. Brachoth ibid.
4. Maharal, Nethiv HaEmeth ch. 2.
5. Rabbeinu Bachyeh, Shemoth 11:4.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org