Vayayshev by David Hartley Mark

A mildly balmy Egyptian night, c. 1650 BCE. Joseph’s office, adjacent to the Throne Room of Pharaoh Sesostris III, most important king of the 12th Dynasty, Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom.

Joseph, Vice-Pharaoh to Sesostris III, Minister of Farms, Provisions, and Agriculture, Chief Adviser Plenipotentiary to His Majesty, has been finishing up some grain orders for Nubia. His desk is awash in papyrus scrolls, which he is somehow able to wade through with ease, searching with knowing hands and eyes until he is able to pick out the one he wants. He pauses only to sip at a cup of herbal tea.

At his feet, seated in a nearby corner, is his secretary and batman, Retjenu. He is a young man, nearly twenty, his head shaved bald in the stylish manner, seated Indian-style, with his kilt firmly stretched by the position of his legs, so that he is able to write on a fresh papyrus-roll, using a reed stylus. He is speaking to his lord and boss, Joseph.

Retjenu: “And forty thousand minae of wheat grain, along with eight-hundred-sixty barrels of rice, to be delivered by skiff and trireme to the warehouse of Uribaal the Phoenician tradesman.” And what percentage, Milord Joseph, will he deduct for handling costs?

Joseph: The usual tariff; you know how to calculate it; use the tables, as I showed you, clever Retjenu. You know almost how to run the office in my absence, were I to take a holiday off, could you not?

Retjenu (tapping the reed against his top teeth, thinking): I imagine I could; yes, Milord, I believe I would be able to, at that. Thank you for placing your trust in me.

Joseph: But that will never happen. (whispering) His Royal Majesty will never consent to my leaving the Capital City Heliopolis, let alone the palace. I am a moth, albeit one full of advice, fluttering around the Pharaoh’s head, truth to tell. I am lucky to get home to see my wife and two boys, Ephraim and Menashe, but once a week. A cage may be gold and ivory, but it is still a cage. And how can I teach my boys my heritage? They know Egypt; they know pyramids, sphinxes, and can write hieroglyphics backward and forward—but what do they know of their Papa’s home and family?

Retjenu (looking about tiredly; yawns): Have you more orders for me, Milord? The hour grows late.

Joseph: Why are you in such a hurry? Is it that young lady-in-waiting of the Queen’s Chambers—the one I saw you speaking to, this Royal Assembly Day last? Clever Retjenu! To snare a pretty she-ibis, one must bait the trap with shining jewels.

Retjenu (stretching, rousing himself): I protest, Milord (yawning, in spite of his best efforts to resist) my every waking moment is of work. (Stiffly) I live and breathe to serve only Ra and Milord and My Pharaoh, who steers the Sun-god’s Chariot across the heavens, pursuing the Great Scarab-Beetle in its flight!

Joseph (teasing): O come, Retjenu, old friend: I speak to you of love, and you come back at me with a dung-beetle (laughing). Besides, sun-chariots and scarabs aside, you know there is but One True God, the Invisible One! (whispering, again) Have I not told you how He rescued me from the Pit of the Prison, and raised me to this high and enviable Eminence, and how I speak to Him softly, in my heart, day after day? Were it not for Him, my brothers—brothers, indeed! (bitterly)—had it not been for weak-kneed Reuven, I would be dead in the ditch of the desert today, rather than wearing fine linen and cloth-of-gold, and bestriding the narrow earth like a Colossus—but for the rest of my brothers? Pah! I spit on them: would that they were here, to admire my greatness….

Retjenu (rising, and picking up a stray papyrus from Joseph’s desk): It seems, Milord Joseph, you might be seeing them, sooner than you think. I see here from the Border Troop Patrol that famine has stricken the Canaanite Wastelands—the place you have told me is your Native Land.

Joseph (taken aback; then, slowly and thoughtfully): Famine, you say? Then my predictions from El-Shaddai, God-of-my-Father-Jacob, were correct.

Retjenu: Yes: unlike us luckier folks here in Egypt, the round-headed, dark-eyed savages of Canaan, Ra curse them!—Oh, I forgot they are your family and native people, Milord Joseph (begins to fall to his knees to genuflect, but Joseph waves the insult away)—suffer famines from time to time. Here in Egypt, Mother Nile rises regularly to moisten our Blessed Earth, year following year, and we enjoy a steady growth of grain. In Canaan, the dark-eyed, savage gods are angry, and they often withhold their bounty of water-from-heaven, so the ugly Canaanites must come south, to our Heaven-Land-Kingdom, and we can sell them grain.

Joseph: So I was right to build the great storehouses and silos, and Sesostris, my Pharaoh and Master, correct in giving me Powers Plenipotentiary. As always, O’ God (he looks heavenward), I, like my father Jacob and great-grandfather Avraham, am in the Right Place at the Right Time. Come, Retjenu!

Retjenu (confused): Come where, Milord? Is it not still the middle of the night?

Joseph: Yes: but we need time to make ready to sell grain to Outlanders. If I am correct, there will be a virtual parade of petitioners from Canaan come to us to purchase wheat, beginning tomorrow, and we must be prepared—rouse the palace staff, and have them come to me, to arrange a Room of Reception, with ropes to line them up, tables to register their names, and barrels of grain to fill their gunny sacks! I will be seeing my Dear, Lost Brethren soon, and Sweet Revenge will be mine, or my Egyptian name is not Tsafnat-Paanayach….

Retjenu (picking up on Joseph’s energy): I am with you all the way, Milord! And I am not in the least bit sleepy. What was that you said about Revenge being sweet?

Joseph (as he ties up his Royal Robes, and sweeps grandly out the door of his office chambers): The time is out of joint. O Cursed Spite, that ever I was born to set it right!

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance

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