Parshat Vayigash Yosef Reveals Himself to His Brothers

Yosef Reveals Himself to His Brothers

Yosef could not hold in his emotions. Since all his attendants were present, he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” Thus no one else was with him when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers. (Bersheit 45:1)

Yosef has accused Binyamin of stealing. He has threatened to imprison Binyamin. As the parasha opens, Yehuda intervenes with Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf. He offers to deliver himself to imprisonment in Binyamin’s place. Yehudah completes his appeal. Yosef is overcome with intense emotion. He commands his servants and ministers to leave him. He is prepared to finally reveal himself to his brothers. Why did Yosef command his servants to leave? The Torah provides an ambiguous response. The pasuk seem to indicate two reasons. First, Yosef could no longer restrain his feeling. Second, he planned to reveal himself to his brothers. What is the connection between these two factors?

Our Sages offer different explanations. Rashi reinterprets the passage. He explains that Yosef was not overcome with emotion. He offers an alternative translation of the opening phrase of the passage “Yosef could not endure.” The Torah is telling us that he could not endure displaying his brothers’ shame before others. He was prepared to reveal himself. He would tell his brothers that he was Yosef. He was the brother they had plotted against and sold into slavery. The brothers would be confronted with the injustice of their behavior. Yosef did not want the Egyptians to learn of his brothers’ intrigues against him. He did not want to disgrace his brothers in the presence of the Egyptians.[1]

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers another explanation. He accepts Rashi’s assertion that Yosef did not want the Egyptians present when he confronted his brothers. However, Ibn Ezra explains that Yosef was overcome by the intensity of his feelings. Yosef was prepared to reveal himself. Ideally, he would have waited until he was alone with his brothers. However, because he was overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings, he could not wait for this opportunity. He could no longer maintain his disguise of a stranger. Therefore, he was anxious to remove his servants.[2]

Nachmanides offers a very interested variation on these explanations. He also agrees that Yosef did not want the Egyptians present at the moment of his revelation. However, he offers an alternative explanation for this concern. Yosef planned to bring his father and brothers down to Egypt. His plan would require the acquiescence of Paroh and the Egyptian people. He expected Egypt to open its borders to foreigners. This new group must be positively represented. Yosef needed to convince the Egyptians that they should not fear these foreigners. The Egyptians could not discover that Yosef’s family had intrigued against him and showed disregard for their father’s feelings. This knowledge would evoke suspicions. How could the Egyptians trust the loyalty of a family that sold one of its members into slavery? How could the brothers be expected to be faithful to Paroh? They had not been faithful to their own father! In order to avoid creating these suspicions, Yosef hid from the Egyptians the events leading to his bondage.[3]

Yosef’s Reassurance to His Brothers

And now do not be grieved, and do not be angered that you have sold me to here. For it is as a source of sustenance that G-d has sent me before you. (Beresheit 45:5)

Yosef tells his bothers that he is their brother whom they sold into slavery in Egypt. He immediately assures his brothers that they need not fear him. Although they had plotted evil against him, he will not avenge this sin. Yosef explains that his brothers’ designs had not placed him in Egypt. It was Hashem who had arranged Yosef’s exile. Providence had provided, through Yosef, salvation for the Children of Israel in this time of terrible famine. Yosef succeeds, through these assurances, in calming his brothers. They accept that his attitude of fraternal responsibility for their welfare is sincere. They return to Canaan to bring their families and father down to Egypt. They place their fates completely in the hands of their brother Yosef.

It is difficult to understand the impact that Yosef’s assurances had on his brothers. Yosef, did not in any way, minimize the evil motives of his brothers or make mention of any repentance on their part. Yosef’s entire interaction with his brothers, since their first appearance in Egypt, was designed to chastise them for misjudging him and for their callousness towards their father. Yet the brothers understood Yosef’s words as containing a message of forgiveness or at least forbearance. Where was this message implied in his words?

The Talmud comments that Yaakov and his children were destined to descend to Egypt. Rashi explains that this fate was decreed by Hashem in His covenant with Avraham.[4] He told Avraham that his descendants would endure four hundred years of exile and persecution before returning to the Land of Canaan and taking possession of it.[5] The Talmud asserts that had Yaakov not descended to Egypt to reunite with Yosef. He would have been brought into exile in iron chains.[6] The Talmud’s message is that although the brothers believed that they were shaping their fate and the fate of Yosef when they sold him into slavery, they were actually only players in a drama directed by Hashem. They were participants in a divine strategy designed to fulfill the decree of exile and persecution that Hashem had revealed to Avraham.

Yosef’s comments to his brothers reflect his recognition of the Talmud’s basic message. He understood that his brothers’ behaviors had not determined his fate. Instead, his fate was a consequence of a providential plan that neither he nor his brothers could alter. Vengeance is motivated by a desire to repay those who have harmed us. In order to desire vengeance, we must believe that an individual not only wished us evil, but actually succeeded in causing us harm. Yosef explained that he recognized that his brothers had conspired to subject him to bondage in a foreign land. However, he did not consider his experiences to be a result of their actions. Rather, the brothers were only participants in an intricate interplay directed by Hashem. He could not feel a desire for vengeance. His tribulations were the result of Hashem’s design. The brothers realized that Yosef did not hold them responsible for his troubles, and this assurance convinced the brothers that Yosef would not harm them.

Yosef’s Self-Imposed Separation from His Father

And Yosef harnessed his chariot and he went up to greet his father Yisrael at Goshen. And he appeared to him and he fell upon his shoulders and he wept upon his shoulders for a long time. (Beresheit 46:29)

Yosef is finally to be reunited with his father, Yaakov. The pasuk tells us that he harnessed his chariot. Our Sages comment that although Yosef was a ruler in Egypt, he personally prepared his chariot. This was an indication of his deep respect for his father.[7] He greets his father and is overcome by emotion. He falls upon Yaakov’s shoulders and weeps. This reunion is not the first indication of Yosef’s deep concern and love for Yaakov. He had repeatedly asked the brothers to report upon Yaakov’s well-being. Yosef was a person of great authority in Egypt. He was second only to Paroh. It is clear that he had complete freedom of action. He loved his father. He certainly knew of the sorrow his father must have experienced in believing that his son was dead. It would seem Yosef could have easily contacted Yaakov earlier. Why did Yosef not communicate with Yaakov before this point?

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam makes an enigmatic comment about this issue. He explains that Yosef recognized that Divine Providence was at work. He felt that revealing himself to his father would interfere with Hashem’s plan.[8] The difficulty in Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam’s explanation is that it is based upon a number of unstated premises. The explanation assumes that Yosef had some understanding of the nature of Hashem’s plan. Based upon this understanding, Yosef concluded that he could not communicate to Yaakov. Any communication would undermine the ultimate objective. Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam leaves it to us to deduce Yosef’s theory regarding Hashem’s plan.

Perhaps we can understand Yosef’s theory if we return to his dreams as a youth. In these dreams, Yosef discovered that some day he would become the leader of the brothers. Even his father would be under his authority. The brothers regarded these dreams as youthful fantasies. But Yosef never doubted the authenticity of his visions. Yosef realized that there were two possible paths to the fulfillment of his dreams. He could ascent to a position of authority over the brothers through their recognition of his leadership. This path was closed by the enmity that developed between Yosef and the brothers.

The other path was far more radical. It required that Yosef achieve power and authority independently. Once this position was achieved, events would cause the brothers to submit to Yosef’s leadership. This second path would require Yosef’s separation from his family until the proper moment. Yosef must wait for the moment at which his brothers would be forced to submit themselves to his leadership.

Yosef understood that the decision of his brothers to sell him blocked the first path. He would not achieve his proper role through the willing recognition of the brothers. He concluded that his experiences in Egypt, in some way, were a journey along the second path. These experiences would ultimately end with a reunification with the brothers. However, for this reunification to result in his ascension to a position of power among the brothers, he must patiently await the proper moment. Yosef could not contact his family before this proper moment. Any reunification, before the intended time would undermine the plan of Hashem.

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

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

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

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Shabbat 89b.

[5] Sefer Beresheit 15:13-16.

[6] Mesechet Shabbat 89b.

[7] Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 55:8.

[8] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:30.