Parshat Mikeitz: Yosef’s Torment of his Brothers

And Yosef was the ruler over the Land and he provided sustenance to the people of the Land. The brothers of Yosef came and they bowed to him – their faces to the ground. (Beresheit 42:6)

An overview of the Torah’s description of Yosef’s reintroduction to his brothers and Yosef’s enigmatic plan

Parshat Meketz recounts Yosef’s rescue from prison and his sudden ascent to the position of Prime Minster of Egypt. The account of this remarkable change in Yosef’s status is followed by a description of the events of his reunion with his brothers. The description of this reunion is composed of four distinct components. First, Yaakov directs Yosef’s brothers to travel to Egypt and purchase food to sustain their family until the famine that has struck their region runs its course. Egypt is also experiencing the drought that has occasioned the famine. However, as a result of Yosef’s counsel, it amassed adequate reserves of grain prior to the onset of the famine to sustain it and the region. The brothers follow their father’s instructions and ten of them travel to Egypt. Binyamin, the youngest of the brothers remains with his father Yaakov. The brothers arrive in Egypt and encounter Yosef. Yosef has taken charge of the food distribution and sale. He recognizes his brothers but they do not recognize him. Yosef accuses the brothers of being spies. They respond by describing their family and the purpose of their mission – to purchase food for their family. Yosef rejects their response and places the brothers in prison. After a few days, he releases the brothers and tells them that he will provide them with an opportunity to vindicate themselves. They will be given provisions to sustain their family for a brief time. But one of their company will be held in prison. His release will be secured and further provisions will be provided only when they return with their youngest brother and thereby, prove that they have been truthful in their account. Yosef then reinters Shimon and sends the brothers home. However, he instructs his assistant to not only provide the brothers with the promised provisions, but to also surreptitiously return their payments. The payments for their provisions¬¬ should be packed with the purchased provisions.

Second, the brothers begin their journey home. One immediately discovers the returned payment and the discovery causes some alarm. The brothers are concerned that some subterfuge is taking place. The brothers arrive home and they recount to Yaakov their experiences and describe the Egyptian Prime Minister’s threatening and mysterious behavior. Very soon, they realize that all of their payments have been returned. This discovery acerbates their alarm and increases their suspicions. At first, Yaakov refuses to allow them to return to Egypt with Binyamin. However, as the provisions near exhaustion and their situation becomes increasingly desperate, Yaakov relents. He allows the brothers to take Binyamin with them and return to Egypt.

Third, the brothers return to Egypt. Yosef sees Binyamin. He releases Shimon and directs his assistant to invite the brothers to his home. The brothers are concerned that the invitation is related to the mysteriously returned payments and is the next step in some sinister plot to implicate them in a crime. But the assistant explains that they are not suspected of wrong-doing and the invitation is not the expression of any hidden motive. The brothers join Yosef. Yosef is a completely gracious host. He bestows a blessing upon Binyamin. Yosef and the brothers exchange gifts. They eat and drink together.

Fourth, Yosef instructs his assistant to provide the brothers with all the provisions they can transport. Again, he directs that their payments be returned. However, he also instructs that his goblet should be hidden among Binyamin’s provisions. He allows the brothers to embark upon their return journey. Then, he sends his assistant after the brothers with instructions to accuse the brothers of stealing his goblet. The brothers deny any wrong-doing and submit their possessions to inspection. The goblet is found among Binyamin’s possessions. Yosef’s assistant tells the brothers that Binyamin will be punished by being enslaved. The brothers refuse to part with Binyamin and accompany him back to Yosef. Yehudah tells Yosef that the brothers will not abandon Binyamin. They will all enter to slavery with their brother. Yosef refuses to accept their offer and tells them they should leave Binyamin and return home without him.

This very basic summary is adequate to bring into focus one of the major problems with the parasha. Yosef, had some plan in place that he was carefully executing. What was his plan and what was Yosef attempting to accomplish? Clearly, he is not attempting to merely take vengeance upon his brothers. The account ends with Yosef insisting that they return home. They offer to remain as slaves but Yosef refuses their offer. If his objective was to punish the brothers, he should not have given-up the opportunity to condemn them to the same fate that they had planned for him – a life of slavery. More mysterious is his treatment of Binyamin. Binyamin was Yosef’s brother. He was the brother Yosef longed to see. Yet, Yosef framed Binyamin of a crime and condemned him to slavery.

And Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamt about them. He said to them: You are spies. You have come to discover the secrets of the Land. (Beresheit 42:9)

And Yosef gave instructions. And they filled their vessels with grain. And (he directed) to return their money to each man’s sack and to give them provisions for the trip. Thus was done for them. (Beresheit 42:25)

The vacillations in Yosef’s treatment of his brothers

When Yosef’s interactions with his brothers are considered more carefully, they are even more enigmatic. At first, Yosef treats his brothers very harshly. He accuses them of spying on Egypt. However, before allowing them to return to Canaan with provisions for their families, he returns to them the funds they used to purchase these provisions. This was an act of unsolicited generosity. When the brothers return, he invites them to his home. He exchanges gifts with the brothers, blesses Binyamin, shares a meal with the brothers, and drinks with them. He treats them with kindness and demonstrates friendship towards them. But immediately after this display of friendship and kindness, he plots against Binyamin and fabricates a serious charge of theft against his younger brother. In short, this treatment towards his brother vacillates between extremes of hostility and kindness. This behavior is even more remarkable when Yosef’s position in the government is considered. He was Prime Minister of Egypt. His vacillations undermined his credibility as head of the government. He accused the brothers of being spies and then invited these suspected spies to his home, and showed them every kindness. He was befriending the very group of people he accused of spying on his country!

And Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them. He disguised himself and spoke harshly to them … (Beresheit 42:7)

And he directed that they be seated before him with the firstborn in the first position and the youngest in his appropriate position. The men expressed their astonishment to one another. (Beresheit 43:33)

Yosef’s hints to his true identity and his brothers’ failure to respond

There is another area in which Yosef’s behavior was inexplicably erratic. When Yosef initially encountered his brothers, he made a deliberate decision to conceal his identity. Throughout his interactions, he continued to conceal his true identity. However, time and again, he provided the brothers with hints – some quite substantial – of his true identity. His repeated acts of kindness mystified the brothers and certainly must have evoked their curiosity. Upon the brothers’ return to Egypt, Yosef asked the brothers whether their father was well. This is an unusual question from a prime minister. But these are minor inconsistencies compared to Yosef’s conduct during the brothers’ visit to his home. Yosef sat the brothers in the order of their ages. The brothers were astounded that the Egyptian Prime Minister accurately anticipated their ages. He then gave each brother gifts. But Binyamin received five-fold the gifts received by the other brothers. Again, the brothers must have wondered at the Prime Minister’s treatment of their youngest brother. In short, Yosef never revealed his identity but he did repeatedly provide hints to his true identity.

Perhaps, equally amazing is that the brothers noted all of the behaviors but never suspected the true identity of the Prime Minister. It is especially remarkable that the brothers could not identify their brother even after their return to Egypt. The Prime Minister expressed concern over the welfare of their father, he knew their ages, demonstrated fraternal affection and preference for Binyamin. Yet, the brothers never concluded that the Prime Minister was Yosef!

And he said: it is inappropriate for me to do so. The man in whose hand the goblet was found, he will be my slave. You will ascend in peace to your father. (Beresheit 44:17)

Yosef’s basic aim: To assure Binyamin’s safety

Perhaps, the most straight-forward method of unraveling Yosef’s intention is to consider what would have occurred if his plan had unfolded as he intended. Yosef arranged for Binyamin’s implication in the theft of his goblet. He declared that as punishment, Binyamin would remain in Egypt as his slave and the other brothers should return to their father. Yehudah successfully interceded and Yosef revealed himself. But had Yehudah not succeeded, then Binyamin would have been separated from the brothers and they would have returned to their father. This indicates that Yosef wished to separate his brother from the others. What was Yosef’s motive?

In order to identify Yosef’s motives, it is important to review the relationship he had with his brothers before they were separated. Yosef was intensely disliked and mistrusted by his brothers. Their animosity towards him brought the brothers to the brink of fratricide and did result in their selling Yosef into slavery. What were the origins of these intense feelings? This issue is addressed in the opening section of the previous parasha. Rashbam understand this opening section as a list of the reasons for the brothers’ animosity towards Yosef.[1] He identifies four factors.

• Yosef preferred to spend his time with the children of Yaakov’s secondary wives – the maidservants of Rachel and Leyah. He avoided the children of Leyah.
• Yosef reported to his father that Leyah’s children treated their brothers in a condescending manner. He compared this with the preferential treatment he gave them.
• The brothers observed that their father, Yaakov, had a special love for Yosef and this evoked their jealousy.
• Yosef shared with his brothers his dreams of ruling over them.

Yosef may have recognized that his own immature behavior had enraged his brothers. But he also recognized that to a great extent the brothers were driven by intense jealousy. He was the son of Yaakov’s most beloved wife, Rachel. Yaakov demonstrated his special love for Yosef. The feelings of the brothers were so intense that they drove them to the extreme measure they took against Yosef. It is likely that Yosef wondered whether his brother Binyamin was safe or whether he too was the subject of the brothers’ jealousy and animosity. One can imagine the deep concern Yosef must have experienced when his brothers appeared in Egypt – ten of his brothers; only Binyamin was absent. Yosef immediately designed a plan to determine whether Binyamin was safe or had also been subjected to the animosity of the brothers. He demanded the brothers bring Binyamin to him. Binyamin’s appearance before him, assured Yosef that the brothers had not taken the extreme measures against Binyamin that they had applied to Yosef. But Yosef remained uncertain of Binyamin’s safety with his brothers. As a result, he was determined to rescue him from the potential danger of remaining with the brothers.

Now let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. We will say an evil beast devoured him and we will see what will become of his dreams. (Beresheit 37:20)

The brothers’ failure to recognize Yosef and its causes

This provides an overall outline of Yosef’s plan. But many questions remain unanswered. In order to more fully understand Yosef’s behavior, it is necessary to return to the initial moments of their encounter in Egypt. The Torah relates that when Yosef saw his brothers, he immediately recognized them but they did not recognize him. Rashi explains that in the years that had passed since their separation, Yosef’s appearance had changed more that the appearances of his brothers. They were mature and already had beards at their separation. Yosef was younger and did not have beard at that time. The Prime Minister that stood before the brothers was a mature man with a full beard. This difference in Yosef’s appearance concealed his identity from the brothers.[2] Nachmanides adds that Yosef was prepared to encounter his brothers. He expected them to eventually come to Egypt for provisions. But the brothers had sold Yosef into slavery. They expected that if he were still alive, he was a lowly slave.[3] Nachmanides is describing a common phenomenon. An example will help explain his point.

A few months ago, a person approached me in synagogue and greeted me. I did not recognize the individual and responded without giving any indication of recognition. The person was surprised I did not recognize him and introduced himself. I embarrassedly apologized for my failure to recognize him. But there was a reason I did not recognize my acquaintance. I had not seen him in many years. When I last saw him he was living on the east-coast. I had absolutely no reason to expect to see him in Seattle. However, he knows that I live in Seattle. He knows which synagogues I attend and expected to see me at services. So, he recognized me immediately. But when he greeted me, I saw him outside of his “normal context”. If I had entered his place of business or his home – his “normal context”, I would have immediately recognized him and greeted him. But when he approached me in synagogue, I had no reason to expect him in this context. So, I failed to recognize him.

Nachmanides is suggesting that the brothers did not recognize Yosef because he was outside of his “context.” They expected their brother to be a slave. Had they encountered him in the streets performing the work of a servant, they may have easily recognized him – even with a beard. But when they encountered the Prime Minister of Egypt, they could not recognize Yosef. It was the wrong “context.”

This explains the failure of the brothers to immediately recognize their brother. But this does not account for their failure to recognize him after Yosef’s repeated hints. Some other factor must be operating. What is this factor? Again, the answer may lie in the previous parasha.

Yosef is sent by his father to check on his brothers’ welfare. As Yosef approaches, the brothers remark that the dreamer is approaching – a reference to Yosef’s dream of supremacy and leadership over his brothers. They declare that they will kill him, throw his body in a pit and “we will see what becomes of his dreams.” These comments and their mocking tone indicate that the brothers – at some level – feared that the dreams might express their true futures. They felt threatened by this vision of the future. Their action taken against Yosef was designed to serve as a denial of this vision. Through killing Yosef – a plan that was eventually altered and Yosef was sold into slavery – the brothers were proving to themselves that Yosef’s dreams were just infantile fantasies.

This denial was very important to the brothers. They were not prepared to reconsider it. When the brothers stood before the Prime Minister of Egypt, when they bowed before him, they could not even consider the possibility that their denial had been an error. They were deeply invested in clinging to the belief that Yosef was a lowly slave. Consequently, they did not recognize Yosef even after repeated hints. Their minds were unprepared to consider the possibility that the dreams were true and that their denial of their veracity had been a foolish attempt to supplant destiny.

Yosef’s motives in hinting to his identity

This explains that brothers’ failure to recognize Yosef. But Yosef’s bizarre behavior remains enigmatic – his vacillations and his hints. If Yosef’s behaviors were indeed guided by design, then the implication is that he was intentionally providing the brothers with hints as to his identity. What was his motive?

It seems that Yosef understood his brothers well. He realized that they did not recognize him because of their deep-seated prejudices against him. They were not prepared to reconsider their denial of his dreams or the accuracy of their appraisal of him. His repeated hints were designed to test the depth of the brothers’ denial. Yosef discovered that despite his repeated hints to his true identity, his brothers never grasped that Yosef was standing before them as Prime Minister. This revealed to Yosef the degree of the brothers’ emotional investment in their early conclusions regarding Yosef and his dreams. Of course, this raises an additional question. Why was Yosef so concerned with this issue? Why did he feel compelled to determine the degree to which the brothers’ feelings blinded them to the evidence he provided of his true identity?

The answer may lie in Yosef’s overriding objective. Yosef’s primary aim was to assure Binyamin’s safety. By the end of the parasha, Yosef has concluded that Binyamin will not be safe with his brothers and can only be protected from them by his separation from them. What led Yosef to this conclusion? Yosef, observed that his shrewd, wise, insightful brothers were incapable of piecing together his repeated hints into a pattern that would reveal his identity. This indicated to Yosef that his brothers’ thinking was influenced by intense unconscious feelings of jealousy and fear. Yosef was concerned that these feelings that were originally directed towards him might be redirected towards Binyamin. His discovery that his brothers were blinded by and apparently ignorant of these feelings, suggested to Yosef that they could not be entrusted with Binyamin’s safety.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:2-8.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:8.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:18.