We read in Parashat Miketz of Yosef’s harsh treatment of his brothers when they came to Egypt to purchase grain. Now the Egyptian vizier who presided over the distribution of grain during a time of severe drought, Yosef accused his brothers – who did not recognize him – of coming to spy, and eventually took Shimon as a prisoner. He instructed them to return to Canaan and bring to him their youngest brother, Binyamin, to prove their innocence.
Many commentators noted how Yosef’s plan was to recreate the circumstances of the brothers’ crime against him. Now, just as then, their brother was being thrown into a “pit” – in this instance, a prison – and they would have to return home to their father and report that his son is missing. Yosef has them bring Binyamin and arranges that they would have to return to Yaakov and report that the son of his most beloved wife, Rachel, is gone – just as they did after Yosef was sold into slavery. (In response to Yehuda’s impassioned plea, however, Yosef reneges and reveals his identity to his brothers.)
It has been suggested that Yosef’s accusation against his brothers was also intended as a parallel, of sorts, to the event of mekhirat Yosef. Yosef accused them of coming as spies – “to see the hidden parts of the land” (42:9) – when in truth they had come out of the perfectly innocent desire to purchase grain. This is quite similar to what happened when Yosef was sold as a slave. He had come to the brothers innocently, with the intention of inquiring about their wellbeing, as Yaakov had requested. They, however – at least from what Yosef understood – suspected that he had come to “spy,” to pry into their private affairs and then report on them to their father. This is what led them to conclude that he had to be eliminated, either by being put to death or sold as a slave.
This parallel, however, brings into focus a crucial difference between the two incidents. Yosef cast allegations against his brothers that were entirely baseless. There was no reason at all to suspect them of having come to Egypt for any reason other than to purchase grain. When Yosef came to his brothers in Dotan, however, it was not unreasonable for them to assume that he had come to spy on them. He already a record of bringing negative reports about them to Yaakov (37:2), and he had spoken to them about his dreams of ruling over the family. The brothers had moved with their flocks to the area of Shekhem, far from the family’s home in Chevron, likely in order to distance themselves from Yosef, who was seeking to undermine their standing in the family and assert his authority. Now that Yosef had come after them, it was, seemingly, understandable that they suspected Yosef of coming to spy on them as part of his effort to impose his rule and authority.
Nevertheless, Yosef thought it was appropriate to arrange this “reconstruction” of his brothers’ crime against him, because the truth is that he had not come to spy against them. His message, perhaps, was precisely that their accusation about him was baseless. Despite their past history, they had no right to assume nefarious motives before even speaking to him and inquiring into the reason for his unexpected visit. He was as innocent when he came to Dotan as the brothers were when they came to Egypt. And thus their mistreatment of him was as cruel and unjustified as his hostility towards them when they were simply trying to purchase food for their families.
Yosef’s message is that we must give people the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to prove themselves, despite past tensions and hostility. We should not necessarily assume that people who were unkind and antagonistic in the past are acting the same way now. All people are given the opportunity to change, and we must allow them the opportunity to regain our trust and friendship.