At their father’s request, Yosef ’s brothers descend to Egypt to procure food in the face of the famine that has affected the entire region. Together with other foreigners, they appear before Yosef, who is in charge of the sale and distribution of stored provisions.
Yosef immediately recognizes his brothers. They, however, fail to recognize him.
Deliberately concealing his true identity, Yosef proceeds to put his brothers through a series of grueling experiences.
Creating a sequence of manipulations clearly designed to keep his brothers off balance, Yosef accuses his brothers of being spies; allows them to return home with provisions but insists that they are not to reappear in Egypt unless they bring their younger brother, Binyamin, with them; imprisons his brother, Shimon, pending the brothers’ return; surreptitiously returns the money that the brothers had used to buy provisions (causing them to fear that they will be accused of theft as soon as they reappear in Egypt); wines and dines his brothers in royal fashion the moment they return from Canaan; orders his servants to hide his silver goblet in Binyamin’s sack; allows the brothers to begin the journey back to Canaan only to immediately order their pursuit; instructs his officers to accuse Binyamin of theft upon the “discovery” of the goblet in Binyamin’s sack and, finally, threatens to imprison Binyamin while allowing the other brothers to return home.
What gives Yosef the right to torment his brothers?
Is Yosef simply seeking revenge against his brothers for their role in his sale into slavery? If so, could he not have exacted that revenge in a much simpler, more straightforward fashion?
Even if Yosef wishes to punish those brothers culpable in his sale, why involve Binyamin, who did not participate in that tragic event at all? Why, in addition, torment his father, Yaakov, by imprisoning Shimon and by forcing Yaakov to allow Binyamin to travel to Egypt?
Finally, how do these apparently vengeful acts correlate with our view of Yosef as Yosef Hatzadik, “Yosef the Righteous”?
Two distinct approaches are suggested by the classical commentaries.
1. Yosef feels compelled to bring his dreams to fruition.
The Ramban, among others, claims that Yosef, at this point in his life, does not see himself as a free agent. Instead, he is motivated by what he believes to be a divinely ordained mission.
Remembering his early dreams in the home of his father, Yosef understands those visions as predicting his ascension to leadership over the members of his own family. He further believes that to secure his family’s future he must now orchestrate the realization of God’s will as indicated within the dreams.
Yosef, therefore, sets out upon a course of action which unfolds in two stages:
First, he manipulates events so that all his brothers (including Binyamin) descend to Egypt, where they are forced to acknowledge Yosef ’s supremacy. This acknowledgment marks the fulfillment of Yosef ’s first dream, in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowed down to his.2 Yosef then arranges for the descent of his father’s entire family to Egypt, bringing about the realization of his second dream, in which the sun, moon and stars bowed down directly to Yosef.
2. Other commentaries suggest that Yosef deliberately punishes his brothers, measure for measure, for their crimes against him. These punishments enable his brothers to properly atone and eventually repent for their earlier transgressions.
A significant objection can be raised, however, to both approaches suggested above. Simply put, who appointed Yosef God? Who assigned him either the task of bringing his dreams to fruition or of orchestrating his brothers’ repentance?
Countless prophets were granted heavenly visions yet remained content to allow the fulfillment of those visions to come about at God’s hands. Punishment, atonement and repentance are issues between a man and his Maker. By what right does Yosef assume the prerogative of manipulating events so that his brothers will repent?
A fascinating twist on the classical approaches is suggested by the nineteenth-century German scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch maintains that Yosef ’s true motivation is a desire to create a new relationship with his brothers.
Yosef, however, recognizes that: “Their inner feelings towards one another would have to become quite different from what they formerly were. Otherwise, an intimate relationship would never be able to be reestablished, and even if outwardly the family were to be reunited, the family would be lost to him [Yosef], and he to the family.”
Yosef knew that, were he to reveal himself immediately to his brothers, their shared past would haunt them all forever. Yosef would always see his brothers as the callous criminals who facilitated his sale into slavery. The brothers, on the other hand, whenever they saw Yosef, would remember his cries from the pit. They would never fully trust his feelings towards them, nor would they move past their own overwhelming sense of guilt.
Something dramatic had to cause a change.
Yosef, therefore, sets about creating a new reality, a foundation upon which a future relationship can be built. He manipulates events so that his brothers are faced with the same circumstances they faced at the time of his sale. When the brothers risk their own freedom to save Binyamin, they prove to Yosef and to themselves that they have changed; they no longer could cause or even allow a brother’s pain. Yosef realizes that the time has come to begin anew, for now he and his brothers will be able to view themselves and each other differently.
Yosef finally reveals his true identity and Yaakov’s sons begin their long journey towards healing.
Points to Ponder
Often, Jews are criticized for failing to move past the trauma of past tragedies and suffering. With a seeming sense of paranoia, we tend to greet each world event with the parochial questions: “Is it good for the Jews? How will these events affect us?”
Our posture can be well understood, however, in light of the Yosef story.
How can we trust a world that seems unchanged? The rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, bringing in its wake propaganda and physical attacks eerily reminiscent of the years before the Holocaust; the fanatic hatred of Islamic fundamentalists towards the State of Israel and the Jewish people in general; the readiness of nations to appease tyrannical regimes such as Iran rather than face them down; the inability of the world to halt clear cases of genocide such as those which took place in Rwanda, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, more recently, in Darfur all drive home the clear message that the world community is yet willing to tolerate the demonization and destruction of entire peoples.
The Jewish nation would be pleased to move past the pain and suspicion that has, for centuries, characterized our relationship with the peoples around us. There must, however, be a foundation for a new relationship. Tragically, to this day, that foundation remains conspicuously absent.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.