The Intractable Question: Why Did Yosef Not Send Word to his Father?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

Seven hundred years ago, Ramban (Bereishit 42:9) posed a difficult question, one which continues to puzzle whoever studies the book of Bereishit:

How is it that Yosef, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days' travel from Chevron, and respect for his father would have justified even a year's journey! ... [It would] have been a grave sin to torment his father by leaving him in mourning and bereavement for himself and for Shimon; even if he wanted to hurt his brothers a little, how could he not feel pity for his aged father?

Ramban's own astonishing answer to his question is that Yosef's goal was to guarantee the fulfillment of his dreams. Even after the first dream had been realized, he intensified the deception in order to fulfill the second dream.

He did everything in its proper time in order to fulfill the dreams, for he knew they would be fulfilled perfectly.

Abarbanel (chap. 41, question 4) poses the same question, but more bluntly:

Why did Yosef hide his identity from his brothers and speak harshly to them? It is criminal to be as vengeful and recriminating as a serpent! ... How is it that as his brothers were starving and far from home, having left their families and small children and, above all, his aged, worried and suffering father waiting for them, did he not show compassion, but rather intensified the anguish by arresting Shimon?

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (Akedat Yitzchak, 29, ques. 9; see also Abarbanel, chap. 41, ques. 6) finds Ramban's solution puzzling.

What did he stand to gain by having his dreams fulfilled? Even had there been some advantage, that would not have justified sinning toward his father! And as for the dreams, let the Giver of dreams provide their solutions. It seems very foolish to strive to fulfill dreams, as the fulfillment does not depend on the dreamer's will.

Professor Nechama Leibowitz, in her commentary to Bereishit (p. 327), believes that dreams can indeed be acted upon. She cites as proof Gideon, who hears a Midianite tell a dream, and acts upon it (Judges 7:13,14), as well as the Babylonian exiles (Ezra 1), who did not wait for the seventy years of Jeremiah's prophecy to pass, but returned on their own, beforehand.

In my opinion, Prof. Leibowitz is mistaken. There are two differences between her examples and the case at hand, both of which are mentioned as well by R. Yitzchak Arama.

First, neither Gideon nor the Babylonian exiles committed a grave offense in following their dreams. Their dreams did not contradict honoring parents, and certainly did not call on them to cause others grief. Secondly, Scripture itself clearly differentiates dreams from prophecy:

Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream;

And [let the prophet] who bears My word speak My word truthfully;

What is straw to wheat? The Lord has spoken.

(Yirmiyahu 23:28)

As the Talmud (Berakhot 55a) explains:

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: Just as wheat cannot exist without chaff, there cannot be a dream without false elements.

Rabbi Berekhia said: Although a dream may be partially fulfilled, it will not be fulfilled in its entirety. How do we know this? From Yosef, as it is written: "The sun (representing Yosef's father), the moon (his mother), and eleven stars [are bowing down to me]," and at the time, his mother was no longer alive.

The prophet Yirmiyahu teaches us that dreams are the outer shell of prophecy, just as chaff is the outer shell of wheat. The true prophet is able to separate grain from chaff in order to eventually produce clean flour for baking. It is dangerous to confuse the different levels, to the point where every inspired man is considered to be a prophet or seer; we could never clearly perceive the word of God. We need not deny the existence of great visionaries - or underrate their importance - even when we affirm that they are, after all, not prophets.

The Torah distinguishes Yosef's dreams from the prophetic dreams of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov. The Patriarchs' dreams appear as pathways to divine revelation. In the Covenant between the Halves (berit bein ha-betarim), Avraham first sleeps and has a vision, and then receives God's word (Bereishit 16:12- 13; 17-18). Ya'akov has a dream in which he sees a ladder and angels, and then God speaks to him. In Yosef's dreams, however, there is no outward prophecy or Divine revelation. Even in Yosef's solving of dreams, there is only a general feeling of prophecy:

Solutions come from God; please tell me [your dreams]. (40:8)

Not I [but] God will answer for Pharaoh's well-being. (41:16)

Only after completing his explanation does Yosef become more confident:

God is committed to doing this, and God will do it quickly. (41:39)

It is significant that Yosef uses God's universal name "E-lokim," and not the Tetragrammaton or Kel Shakkai, names God uses when He reveals Himself to Israel.

For all the parallels the Midrash draws between Ya'akov and Yosef (Bereishit Rabba 84:6), the Torah clearly differentiates the dreams of one from those of the other. This distinction draws a dividing line between the degree of revelation shown to the Patriarchs, on the one hand, and to Yosef and his brothers, on the other.

Clearly, Yosef's dreams are prophetic, and not mere nonsense. However, they are a form of ruach ha-kodesh (holy inspiration), rather than nevu'a (prophecy; see Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed II:45, where he specifically mentions Yosef as being on the "second level" of prophecy; see also Akedat Yitzchak ad loc.). Ya'akov himself provides the appropriate response to Yosef's dreams:

His father was angry at him and said: "What is this dream you dreamt? Shall I and your mother and brothers come and bow down to you?" ... but his father awaited it. (Bereishit 37:11)

R. Levi adds:

He (Ya'akov) took pen in hand and wrote down on what date, at what time, and at what place. (Ber. Rabba, 84:11)

Dreams like this are precisely the kind of experience about which the Akedat Yitzchak writes, "Let the Giver of dreams provide their solution." These dreams are not granted in order to be put into action by the dreamer. Together with the sheer experience of prophecy, these dreams grant us the power to wait. A dream which comes true without our active involvement is one that we can acknowledge, after the fact, as a prophetic dream. Only an outright prophecy, such as God's word to Gideon, should lead to action without first waiting. Certainly, only an outright prophecy can suspend a commandment, and only as a temporary measure (see Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 9); it is unthinkable that a dream, the outcome of which is still uncertain, should suspend the fulfillment of a commandment even temporarily. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ramban considers these dreams to be full-fledged prophecies. This position is diametrically opposed to that of the Gemara (Berakhot 55a).

Even if we accept the Ramban's position on this point, his explanation of Yosef's behavior is untenable. The first dream was fulfilled when the brothers arrived in Egypt the first time.

Yosef was the ruler of the land; it was he who provided for all the inhabitants. Yosef's brothers came and bowed to the ground before him. (4:26)

There were ten brothers then, excluding Binyamin, who was at home. They had come to obtain grain - the sheaves in the dream.

The second dream is fulfilled when they bring Binyamin and meet with Yosef at his palace for a meal, honoring him and offering him gifts:

Yosef came home, and they brought him the presents they had with them to his house, and bowed down to him. (43:26)

After all eleven stars had bowed down to Yosef in his own right, as seconto the king of Egypt, without any direct connection to the grain, their father's turn comes:

He greeted them and said: "Is your old father, whom you mentioned, at peace? Is he still alive?" They said: "Your servant our father is at peace; he is still alive." They bent down and bowed. (43:27-28)

This painful scene, in which Yosef's brothers prostrate themselves before him in their father's name, and refer to him as "your servant our father," is the fulfillment of the second dream, in which the sun and the moon bow down to Yosef. The entire family (other than his mother, who was no longer alive) has bowed down to Yosef, albeit indirectly - in Ya'akov's case – and without realizing the full significance of their actions.

This scene will repeat itself when Yehuda begs for Binyamin's safety and refers to Ya'akov four times as "your servant our father" (44:14,24,27,30-31). It must be noted at this point that Yosef arranged this episode in order to keep Binyamin in Egypt (since he could not foretell how Yehuda would react) AFTER the second dream had been completely fulfilled. The dreams had all come true before Ya'akov's arrival in Egypt, including the dream in which Ya'akov bows down to his son. In fact, he does not physically bow to Yosef when they are reunited in Egypt; none of the commentators suggest that he did.

The Torah does tell us that when Ya'akov was on his deathbed, Yosef came to see him, and "Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed" (47:31). But it is not clear whether his bowing is before Yosef or before God (Megilla 16b, Sifri Devarim 6) - the simple reading suggests the latter - and certainly, his bowing does not come about through Yosef's initiative. It is precisely the verse cited by Ramban in support of his contention which actually contradicts his theory:

Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. He remembered the dreams he dreamt and told them: "You are spies." (42:8-9)

It is clear that only at this point does Yosef remember his dreams, as he suddenly realizes that the first dream has been fulfilled (see Rashi to 42:9).

Since Yosef remembers his dreams only when his brothers arrive in Egypt, why did he not send word to Ya'akov before that? As ruler of Egypt, it was certainly within his capacity to do so.

Ramban answers that the ten brothers' bowing down at the first meeting was not the realization of the first dream, as the eleventh brother had not yet bowed down to him. Yosef's first dream, however, does not specify the number of brothers making sheaves! Binyamin could not have been in the fields with them at the time, as he was eight years younger than Yosef and hence only nine years old.

Thus, even in a dream Yosef could not have seen Binyamin working in the fields. Even if we accept Ramban's assertion that these dreams are prophetic, we may not distort the content of the dreams. The second dream is never completely fulfilled, as Ya'akov himself did not bow down to Yosef, nor did Rachel, who had not been alive for many years. The family's economic dependence on Yosef cannot be considered a literal fulfillment of the sheaves' bowing down before him.

Ramban himself apparently realized the difficulties inherent in attempting to coordinate the story of the goblet with the dreams. He therefore proposes a second motive for Yosef's actions at this point:

The second affair, which he caused by means of the goblet, was not intended to trouble them. Yosef was afraid that they hated Binyamin, or were jealous of their father's love for him as they had been jealous of [Yosef] ... Perhaps Binyamin had realized that they had harmed Yosef and this had led to acrimony between them. Yosef did not want Binyamin to go with them lest they harm him, until he had verified their love for him. (Ramban, 42:9)

Abarbanel agrees:

Even after Yosef tested his brothers by accusing them of espionage, he was still not certain whether they loved Binyamin or whether they still hated Rachel's children, so he focused on Binyamin to see whether they would try to save him. (chap. 42, quests. 4,6)

In the words of Akedat Yitzchak:

Yosef's intentions were evidently to see whether they still hated him or whether they regretted their actions. (chap. 42, question 2)

This second solution is no less problematic than the first. First of all, we cannot avoid the feeling that the exegetes are attempting to explain away what seems to be an accidental outcome as a preconceived plan of events. The Torah itself indicates that Yosef simply had wanted to keep Binyamin behind, after their brothers had gone home. Possibly he feared that they would harm Binyamin at some point, as Ramban suggests, or he may have wished to reveal his identity to Binyamin alone and discuss with him plans for bringing Ya'akov to Egypt. He may even have intended to force Ya'akov to come to Egypt by holding Binyamin hostage. It might be that he simply wanted to hear from Binyamin all that had transpired since he was sold. He may have wanted Binyamin's cooperation in establishing the tribes of Rachel as a separate entity. But it seems utterly far-fetched that Yosef planned the affair of the goblet so that Yehuda would intervene and offer to be enslaved instead of Binyamin, forcing Yosef into an emotional situation in which, losing his self-control, he would finally reveal his identity,

All of this indeed came about, but none of it was premeditated. Yosef could not have intended to test his brothers' attitude toward Binyamin. What would he have done if, as was quite possible, they had accepted the situation as God's will, as punishment for their sin, and left Binyamin with him as they had left Shimon? Would this have proven either that they were not sorry for what they had done to Yosef or that they did not love Binyamin? Does submission to the power of a tyrant prove anything? When Avraham agreed that Sarah be taken by Avimelech, did that mean he did not love her? She herself did not object to this unpleasant means of survival in a strange land (Bereishit 12:10; see Ramban and Ha'amek Davar ad loc.).

At no point in Yehuda's long speech is there any mention of the brothers' feelings toward each other or toward Binyamin. Yehuda's expressed concern is with his "old father" whom they left behind, and who interested the ruler so much. Ya'akov is Yehuda's last resort, and Yehuda plays it for all it is worth, hinting all the while at Yosef's responsibility for any outcome.

Can we be sure that, had Yehuda not committed himself to his father under penalty of "eternal guilt," that this outburst would have occurred? It can certainly be taken as a sign of repentance in general. But it was not evoked by any feeling of love or pity toward Binyamin or Yosef, but rather by a feeling of responsibility to his father.

There are two explicit references in our story to the brothers' attitude toward Yosef. The first is during their first visit to Egypt; the second is after Ya'akov's death.

Yosef hears his brothers express regret at their behavior towards him, when they had only just arrived in Egypt. This regret is coupled with the realization that all that is befalling them is a result of that behavior:

They said to each other: This is our fault, because of our brother;

we saw his suffering when he cried out to us and we did not listen;

That is why this misfortune came upon us. (42:21)

Yosef restrains himself at this point, apparently with some difficulty, and maintains his deception. At no later time does he acquire any new insights into their character. This confession was elicited freely without any pressure whatsoever; they never imagined he could understand them "because the interpreter was between them."

After Ya'akov's death, the brothers return to Yosef fearing retribution.

Yosef might wish to harm us. (50:15)

Most commentators believe that they then lie and invent the story of Ya'akov's deathbed charge, in order to save their lives (Rashi on 50:16; Ramban on 45:27). Their bowing to Yosef at this point, knowing who he is, may be considered the final fulfillment of the dreams.

His brothers also bowed down to him and said: "We are your slaves." (50:16-18)

In our attempt to Yosef's motivation for waiting so many years, and then deceiving his brothers, we have ruled out the desire for forcing the dreams to come true - as "dreams come to us without our consent" - and certainly do not justify torturing old and suffering parents. Furthermore, as we saw earlier, Yosef remembers his dreams only when his brothers appear before him in Egypt.

Testing their regret could also not have been the reason, as he had already heard them express repentance in his presence. He revealed himself later only because he heard of his father's suffering. True, the brothers, especially Yehuda, were found to be repentant. This was, indeed, part of a master plan. But the plan was devised not in Yosef's court, but in a higher domain:

The brothers were occupied with selling Yosef, Yosef was occupied with mourning and fasting, Reuven was occupied with mourning and fasting, Ya'akov was occupied with mourning and fasting, and God was occupied with creating the light of the Messiah. (Ber. Rabba 85:4)

When Yosef does follow his own initiative and asks the chief cupbearer to intercede before Pharaoh on his behalf, he spends two more years languishing in prison.

In summary, I believe that our question outweighs all its proposed solutions.

What, then, do I believe to be the correct understanding of Yosef's behavior? The answer will have to wait until next week's shiur. In the meantime, I invite readers to submit answers of their own to [email protected]