Parshat Vayigash Yosef Asks if His Father Is Still Alive

Yosef Asks if His Father Is Still Alive

And Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” And they could not respond to him for they were confused. (Beresheit 45:3)

At the end of Parshat Meketz, Yosef hid his goblet among Binyamin’s possessions. He then sent his officers to capture Binyamin and accuse him of theft. Yosef’s officers carried out their master’s orders. They brought the brothers before Yosef. Yosef told the brothers that they may return to their father. However, Binyamin will be punished for his crime. He will be placed in bondage in Egypt.

In our parasha Yehudah appeals to Yosef for Binyamin’s release. He offers to take Binyanim’s place. He volunteers to serve as a slave in place of Binyamin. Yehudah completes his appeal. Yosef is overcome with intense emotion. He reveals himself to his brothers. He then asks, “Is my father still alive?” This question is difficult to understand. Surely, Yosef knew the answer. Yehudah had just appealed to Yosef on behalf of Binyamin. In his appeal, he described the deep love between Yaakov and Binyamin. He told Yosef of the unbearable anguish Yaakov would experience if he were separated from his youngest son. It was clear that from this petition that Yaakov was alive. Yehudah was asking Yosef to act with compassion for Yaakov. Why does Yosef now ask, “Is my father still alive?”?

Klee Yakar offers a number of responses to this question. In his first response, he explains that Yosef had listened to Yehudah’s appeal. Yet, he remained uncertain whether his father was alive. He reasoned that because Yehudah was attempting to save Binyamin, he may have been dishonest. Perhaps, his description of the love between Yaakov and Binyamin was an invention designed to appeal to Yosef’s compassion. In order to save Binyamin, Yehudah may have lied about Yaakov.

After Yosef revealed himself, he again asked whether his father was alive. He assumed that the brothers realized that Binyamin was not in danger. They understood that Yosef would not harm his younger brother. He expected that his brothers would now have no reason to deceive him and their response to his renewed inquiry would be completely true.

Klee Yakar offers a second explanation of Yosef’s question based upon the comments of the Talmud. The Talmud’s comments are based upon the brothers’ response to Yosef. The Torah tells us that they were confused. The brothers’ confusion can reasonably be explained as a response to the discovery that the minister of Egypt to whom they were appealing was their brother Yosef. However, the Talmud suggests an alternative explanation of their reaction. The Talmud suggests that they detected a rebuke in Yosef’s question. According to this explanation, their response can be better characterized as shock.

Where was the rebuke in Yosef’s question? Klee Yakar explains that the rebuke is implied by Yosef’s choice of words. Yosef described Yaakov as his father. He did not ask, “Is our father alive?” The brothers sensed that this choice of words reflected a rebuke. Yosef was accusing them of not feeling sympathy for their father. They had allowed Yaakov to suffer the loss of a beloved son. They had not treated Yaakov as their father. They concluded that Yosef was claiming that only he was faithful to Yaakov. He was the only brother that had conducted himself as a true son.[1]

It seems that there is a second rebuke in Yosef’s words, “I am Yosef.” The brothers had judged Yosef to be corrupt beyond salvation. But had they been correct that Hashem would have assisted them in their plans to eliminate their evil and dangerous brother. However, Hashem had ruled against the brothers’ stand. He had protected Yosef, and even led him to prosper and become the ruler of Egypt. Yosef pointed out the extent of their misjudgment of him with the simple but penetrating remark, “I am your brother Yosef, whom you sold to the Egyptians!” Confronted with this twofold rebuke the brothers were completely stunned and could not respond.

Geshonides’ approach to explaining Yosef’s question is similar to Klee Yakar’s first explanation. Yosef was unsure whether his brother’s previous assertions that Yaakov was alive were truthful. However, Gershonides suggests a different cause for Yosef’s suspicions. In order to understand this possibility, we must explain a previous incident.

Yosef’s brothers originally entered Egypt in order to purchase provisions. Yosef accused them of spying. The brothers responded by describing their family structure. They told Yosef that they were all sons of a single father. They told Yosef they had a younger brother who had not accompanied them. This brother was in Canaan with their father. Yosef asserted that their narrative supported his accusation. They could only clear themselves by bringing their youngest brother to Egypt.

This entire exchange seems bizarre! First, why did the brothers respond to Yosef’s accusations with an account of their family structure? What relevance did this response have to the accusation? Second, Yosef rejected their response. He claimed that their reply supported his accusation. How did the brother’s description of their family support Yosef’s charge? Third, Yosef demanded that the brothers clear themselves of suspicion by bringing their youngest brother to Egypt. How would bringing Binyamin to Egypt prove the brothers’ innocence?

Gershonides offers a comprehensive response to these questions. Yosef accused the brothers of spying. The brothers responded that they shared a single father. Gershonides explains this response. Their account of their family was an attempt to persuade Yosef that they were not really spies. Spying is dangerous. A father might allow one of his children to engage in such an endeavor. Perhaps, in a desperate situation, he would allow a few of his children to engage in such a perilous mission. However, a father would not risk the lives of all of his children. The brothers argued that, on this basis, they could not be spies. They were the sons of a single father. He would not allow ten of his eleven sons to risk their lives as spies.

Yosef responded that their account of their family actually undermined their claim of innocence. Their father had not allowed all of his sons to travel to Egypt. He had insisted that one son remain home with him. If they had come to purchase provisions, eleven sons could bring back more food than ten. Keeping one son at home indicated that their father perceived their mission to Egypt as dangerous. Therefore, he had insisted that one son be spared this peril. Why was their mission dangerous? They were spies! Yosef demanded that the brothers demonstrate their innocence. This could be accomplished by returning with their remaining brother. This would prove that they had not come to Egypt on a dangerous spying mission. Their father would only allow all of his sons to travel to Egypt if their mission was truly innocent and harmless.[2]

Based on Gershonides’ explanation of the dialogue between Yosef and his brothers, Gershonides explains Yosef’s question in our pasuk. Yehudah told Yosef that their father was alive. Yosef recognized that this assertion could be a response to the test he had formulated. Bringing Binyamin to Egypt was designed to prove that the brothers were not spies. By allowing all of his sons to travel to Egypt, their father would prove this. In other words, Binyamin’s presence could only establish their innocence if Yaakov was alive. Yosef feared that Yehudah had reported that Yaakov was alive in order to avoid undermining their defense.

Now, Yosef has revealed himself to the brothers. They no longer need to fear the accusation of spying. They can be honest with Yosef. Therefore, Yosef again asks if his father is alive.

Exile in Egypt Contributed to Creating the Nation of Israel

And He said: I am the Hashem, the G-d of your father. Do not fear descending to Egypt. For there I will make you into a great nation. (Beresheit 46:3)

Hashem appears to Yaakov and tells him that it is His will that Yaakov and his family descend to Egypt. There, in a foreign land, the nation of Israel will be created. The pasuk implies that the experience of Yaakov’s descendants in Egypt was essential to the creation of the nation. This goal could not be achieved in the land of Canaan. Why was exile crucial to the creation of the Jewish people?

Sfomo explains that it was impossible for the Yaakov’s descendants to fully integrate into Egyptian society. Custom created an impenetrable barrier between Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians. Egyptian custom even forbade the sharing of a meal with lvrim – the name by which Yaakov, his family and followers were known. They would be segregated into a separate district. Social interaction would be limited. In this environment a small band of co-religionists could develop into a unique nation. Segregation and prejudice would prevent assimilation and absorption.

These conditions could not be duplicated in Canaan. Social barriers between the lvrim and the indigenous peoples were minimal. Before Yaakov’s descendants could develop into an independent nation, assimilation would prevail.[3]

Yaakov’s descendants would eventually return to Canaan, but only after they had developed into Klal Yisrael – the Jewish nation. This evolution could only take place in exile.

Yosef’s Test of His Brothers

And Yosef could not bear all those standing in his presence. And he called out, “Take everyone away from me!” And no one stood with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers. (Beresheit 45:1)

In the previous parasha, Yosef is reunited with his brothers. Yosef is Paroh’s prime minister and rules over Egypt. He recognizes his brothers but they do not recognize him. At the close of the parasha, Yosef instructs the head of his household to surreptitiously place his goblet in Binyamin’s bags. Then, Yosef sends this servant in pursuit of the brothers. The servant and his company overtake the brothers and uncover the hidden goblet. They accuse Binyamin of stealing the goblet. The brothers are returned to Yosef. Yosef tells the brothers that they will be released to return home. But Binyamin will be kept in bondage in Egypt.

Our parasha opens with an appeal by Yehudah to Yosef. His appeal is composed of three components. First, he elaborately describes the agony that their father, Yaakov, will experience if he is separated from Binyamin. He tells Yosef that this separation will kill their father. Second, he explains that from among all of the brothers, he has accepted upon himself primary responsibility for the safe return of Binyamin to his father. If he fails to return Binyamin, he will have irrevocably violated his pledge. Third, Yehudah offers to take Binyamin’s place in bondage. He asks that Yosef allow Binyamin to return to Canaan with his brothers and he will remain in bondage in Egypt.

Our passage introduces Yosef’s reply. The passage relates that Yosef could not bear the situation. However, the exact translation of the passage is widely disputed. The dispute revolves around the precise cause of Yosef’s discomfort and anxiety. The above translation corresponds with Rashi’s interpretation of the passage. According to Rashi, Yosef had reached the moment at which he would reveal himself to his brothers. He knew that his revelation would summon up for his brothers a recounting of his treatment by them. He knew his brothers would experience intense shame. He did not want the Egyptians of his household to witness this episode.[4]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers a similar explanation. His explanation is also consistent with the above translation. According to Ibn Ezra, Yosef was so moved by Yehudah’s appeal that he could not wait any longer to reveal himself to his brothers. This created a dilemma. Yosef was the prime minister of Egypt. He conducted the business of the kingdom. He was not alone with his brothers. Other people who had business to conduct with him were present. Yosef had intended to allow all those present to complete their dealings with him and depart. Once he and his brothers were alone, he would reveal himself. However, he could no longer delay his reunion with his brothers. Yosef departed from his original plan to allow all those present to complete their dealings and depart. Instead, he ordered everyone to be removed from his and his brothers’ presence.[5]

Nachmanides offers a very different explanation of the passage. According to Nachmanides, Yehudah’s appeal was so moving that he had even won the support of Yosef’s household. Yosef was confronted with a unified and all-inclusive opposition. In the face of this opposition, he could no longer promote his threat to imprison Binyamin. He recognized that in order to retain the respect of his own household, he must bring this confrontation to an immediate conclusion. According to this explanation, the passage must be translated somewhat differently than above. According to Nachmanides, the proper translation is that “Yosef could no longer withstand all those in his presence.”[6]

Midrash Rabbah explains that Yosef realized that Yehudah was quickly coming to the conclusion that his appeal had failed. But Yehudah was not willing to abandon his pledge to return Binyamin to his father. Yehudah would have no alternative but to resort to violence. He would soon conclude that he must attempt to physically regain control of Binyamin. Yosef was not willing to allow a physical confrontation to take place. In order to avert this confrontation, he revealed himself to his brothers.[7] This explanation also requires an alternative translation of the text.

Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s approaches share two common elements. First, the first and second portions of the passage are related. Yosef’s command to remove all those present is directly related to the source of his anxiety. According to Rashi, Yosef could not bear for the Egyptians to witness the embarrassment of his brothers. Therefore, he commanded for all those present to be removed. Also, according to Ibn Ezra, this connection is preserved. Yosef intended to reveal himself to his brothers privately – without anyone else present. He could not wait for those present to complete their business. He commanded that they be removed immediately.

Second, according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Yosef’s strategy essentially unfolded as he had planned. According to Rashi, Yosef revealed himself to his brothers at precisely the moment he anticipated. According to Ibn Ezra, Yosef had hoped to avoid any unwelcome witnesses. He was unable to achieve this objective. Certainly, his sudden command that everyone remove themselves from his presence attracted attention. But all the prerequisites that Yosef had planned were in place. He expected nothing else from his brothers. He was merely waiting for the appropriate, confidential moment to reveal himself.

Nachmanides and Midrash Rabbah disagree with Rashi and Ibn Ezra on both of these issues. First, according to Nachmanides and Midrash Rabbah, the first and second portions of the passage are not related. Yosef’s instruction to remove all those present is not directly related to the source of his anxiety. According to Nachmanides, Yosef was forced to act before he lost the respect of his own household. This does not explain his instruction to remove all those present. According to Midrash Rabbah, Yosef feared that Yehudah would soon resort to violence. This concern does not explain his insistence on being alone with his brothers.

Nachmanides addresses this issue. He explains that Yosef’s insistence on being alone with his brothers was not motivated by his anxiety. Instead, he was responding to a different concern. He did not want the Egyptians to discover that his brothers had sold him into slavery and that they had caused their father terrible anguish. Yosef was prepared to appeal to Paroh to allow his father, brothers, and their families to resettle in Egypt. Paroh would need assurance that he could rely on the loyalty of these immigrants. Yosef did not want Paroh to discover that his siblings had sold their own brother into slavery and had mercilessly tormented their own father. If Paroh discovered that Yosef’s brothers acted with callousness and disloyalty to their own family members, he would not trust that their loyalty to him.[8]

Second, according to Nachmanides and Midrash Rabbah, Yosef’s strategy did not unfold exactly as planned. According to Nachmanides and Midrash Rabbah, there is no indication that Yosef was prepared to reveal himself at the moment he did. He was forced to act sooner than he planned – either to protect his own image or to avert violence. If this is correct, an obvious question arises. What else did Yosef seek from his brothers?

In order to answer this question, we must return to Yehudah’s appeal. This appeal is essentially composed of two themes. First, Yehudah carefully describes the suffering his father will experience at the loss of Binyamin. Second, Yehudah accepts upon himself personal responsibility for Binyamin’s return.

These two themes correspond with Yehudah and his brothers’ previous failings. First, in selling Yosef they acted with disregard to their father and his well being. Second, Yehudah was the brother who suggested selling Yosef into bondage rather than killing him. Yehudah had argued that Yosef was their flesh and blood. They should not kill him. However, Yehudah stopped short of confronting his brothers and rescuing Yosef. Instead, he suggested a compromise: selling Yosef into bondage. This suggests that Yehudah was not fully prepared to defend and fight for his values. In order to avoid a confrontation with his brothers, he sought a compromise between his values and their desire to rid themselves of Yosef.

Now, Yehudah speaks to Yosef and describes in detail the suffering his father will experience if he loses Binyamin. Yehudah has repented from the insensitivity he had demonstrated to his father in the past. He also accepts responsibility for Binyamin and is prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save his brother.

Perhaps, according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Yosef’s fundamental objective was to force Yehudah and his brothers to recognize that they had betrayed their father. Yehudah’s appeal eloquently spoke to this issue. Therefore, once Yehudah made his appeal, Yosef was prepared to reveal himself.

However, if Yosef wished to force Yehudah to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice himself for his values, the drama was not yet over. Yehudah had offered to enter into bondage in order to save Binyamin, but his sincerity had not been fully tested. Was Yehudah’s offer sincere or was he hoping that Yosef would recognize his determination to save Binyamin and therefore allow all of the brothers to return to Canaan? One more scene was required to test Yehudah’s sincerity. Would Yehudah allow himself to be placed in shackles or would he attempt to retract his offer at the last moment? Perhaps, according to Nachmanides and Midrash Rabbah, Yosef wished to execute this last test.

[1] Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz, Commentary Klee Yakar on Sefer Bereshiet 45:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 235-236.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 46:3.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:1.

[5] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:1.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:1.

[7] Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 93:8.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:1.