“Yosef brought his father Yaakov and placed him in front of Paraoh; and Yaakov blessed Paraoh.” Radak comments here, “I don’t find a reason why this narrative was written.” What does this teach us? What does it add to our understanding of the overall event? With genuine humility we have to recognize we aren’t very likely to come up with insights the Radak didn’t know or consider; but our obligation remains to apply our energies to learning Hashem’s Torah. As Rabbi Akiva might say (top of ברכות סב), ‘it is Torah and I must learn it’.
First off, let us consider the nature of Yaakov’s blessing to Paraoh. Rashi says this was ‘sheilat shalom’ – Yaakov inquired regarding Paraoh’s welfare. This is analogous to our asking today ‘מה שלומך”; or in English ‘how are you’ or ‘how do you do?’ Ramban disputes Rashi’s understanding and says that the intent is that Yaakov actually blessed Paraoh, “in the manner that elders and pious individuals who come before kings bless them for wealth and property and honor and exalted rule.” What is interesting is that Rashi quotes the midrash that when Yaakov left his interview with Paraoh he blessed him that ‘the Nile should rise to your feet’. Rashi limits the actual blessing to the end of the interview; Ramban says it must have been an actual blessing at the beginning as well. Ramban’s consistent reading is easier it seems, since the language of the Torah is identical at the beginning and end of the meeting. ויברך יעקב את פרעה in both cases; “and Yaakov blessed Paraoh. Radak’s question will remain with us for the moment – why is all this of interest to us?
Sforno adds an interesting nuance to the initial meeting. ‘And Yaakov blessed – but he did not bow down when he entered nor when he left.’ Bowing down to Paraoh may have been simply what a subject does before the king; but it may have also had some religious significance. Paraoh may have blurred the line between man and deity, as was known to happen in ancient cultures (and as we later see with Moshe and the Paraoh of his time). Yaakov’s avoidance of bowing down, as Sforno suggests, may have been a calculated act (or lack thereof) to avoid any manner of idolatry.
Yaakov was coming to Egypt because he faced starvation in Canaan. So he was coming before Paraoh as someone seeking refuge and food. One could expect a noticeable sense of resignation or supplication; but Yaakov approaches Paraoh without bowing down, and blesses him in the manner of ‘elders and pious individuals.’ This may be part of what the Torah wants us to learn. That while being respectful and grateful, we mustn’t compromise our dignity, nor our religious principles and Divine covenant. Even when we come to ask for help, we must act with the dignity of those who serve God. We are yet able to convey blessings; not only to ask for aid. The Jews will face many exiles in the future; and Yaakov’s example may be critical to remind us of our stature, obligations and abilities.