"They had him [Joseph] ride in the chariot of the second [to the king] and they proclaimed before him, "Avrech!" (Gen. 41:43)

"The king’s counselor!
How wise is he, and yet so young!
Bend the knee to him!
"
(ibid. Rashi)

These three explanations by Rashi of the meaning of the Eygptian proclamation are all alluded to by the Hebrew word avrech, which bears various interpretations.

The second two interpretations stem from a debate between two Sages of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Yosi ben Dumaskis (of Damascus):

Rabbi Yosi preferred to interpret the Torah as literally as possible. He therefore translates avrech as "bend the knee," since the word avrech is clearly related to the word for "knee" (berech). From this perspective, the Egyptians only bent their knees to Joseph and did not prostrate themselves before him, as they did to Pharaoh.

Rabbi Judah, on the other hand, preferred to interpret the Torah contextually: he therefore finds it unlikely that the Egyptians did not prostrate themselves before Joseph, since, as we saw above, it was only the throne that Pharaoh kept from Joseph, which implies that in everything else Joseph was equal, including, presumably, that the Egyptians did not just bend their knees to Joseph, they prostrated themselves to him as well.

Rabbi Judah therefore prefers to interpret avrech as referring to Joseph’s wisdom; although this is not a literal interpretation of the word avrech, it aligns more comfortably with the context of the story.

...there are two levels of selflessness before G‑d.

In general, there are two levels of selflessness before G‑d. The first is the selflessness we impose on ourselves when we are aware of ourselves: we are conscious of being separate from G‑d, yet we subdue our sense of self and submit to His will (bitul hayesh).

Bending of the knee expresses the first type: tempered, imposed selflessness. Bowing in this way demonstrates that we accept G‑d’s sovereignty, but we still remain our own selves. Prostration, in contrast, reflects the second type: absolute selflessness, wherein we possess no self-identity aside from our submission [to] Him (bitul hametziyut).

By bowing to Joseph, the Egyptians were, in effect, submitting themselves to Joseph’s level of Divine consciousness. But whereas Joseph embodied absolute selflessness, the Egyptians could only assimilate whatever portion of Joseph’s Divine consciousness they were capable of sustaining.

Rabbi Judah, who emphasizes context over literalness, focuses on Joseph’s transmission of absolute selflessness, prior to its diffusion into the distilled particulars that the Egyptians could assimilate. He therefore asserts that although the Egyptians may not have consciously experienced absolute selflessness, they still prostrated themselves before Joseph because they had been subconsciously affected by what he was emanating.

Rabbi Yosi of Damascus (who lived outside the Holy Land and was therefore associated with a lower level of selflessness) focuses on what the Egyptians were actually able to assimilate from Joseph, which was an imposed selflessness before G‑d – bending of the knee.

Regarding Joseph’s brothers, the Torah explicitly states that they prostrated themselves before Joseph. This is because, according to all views, they were capable of assimilating Joseph’s level of absolute selflessness.

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Bend the knee: The word for bend the knee (avrech) is cognate with the word used in the Mishnah to describe the method of propagating a vine (havracha) by bending it down into the ground in order to send forth new roots and thereby form a new plant. This is an appropriate name for Joseph, who, as we have seen, functioned as a conduit to bring lofty Divine consciousness downward into the material world.


Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp 202 ff and (last paragraph) Torah Ohr 37c
© 2001 Chabad of California/www.LAchumash.org