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Miketz | The Transformation of a Family (1)

Rav Alex Israel



In Memory of Arye ben Yosef haLevi Rothstein.




Our parasha begins by outlining Joseph's rise to power as the highest official of the land of Egypt (see 41:40).  We read of his brothers' arrival in Egypt to buy food provisions in order to survive the severe famine conditions which have spread past the borders of Egypt to Canaan.


Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land.  And Joseph's brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground.  When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger towards them and spoke harshly to them.  He asked them, "Where do you come from?"  And they said, "From the land of Canaan to procure food."  Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.  He recalled his dreams that he had dreamed about them, and he said "You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness" (42:6-9).


Confronted with the arrival of his brothers in Egypt, Joseph subjects them to an ongoing chain of harassment.  He torments them, forcing them through harsh intimidation and a number of testing moral conflicts.  It is not only his brothers who suffer at his hand.  His aging father Jacob suffers immeasurably as Joseph forces the family to tear his dear son Benjamin from him, taking him from the family homestead to the dark unknown territory of Egypt.  Joseph inflicts enormous tension and considerable heartache upon every member of his family.  He strains all the emotionally sensitive ties within the family. 


The question has been asked before, but it still remains an important focus within the story - why does Joseph do it?  Why does he wish to subject his family to such torture?  Is he having fun, getting his revenge?  Is he hopelessly heartless?  Or does he have a plan, a belief that his ongoing torment will eventually result in something positive?  And if he does have a plan, we may ask - does his plan work out? Or does Joseph break down in tears before his brothers before his strategy has come to its fruition?




The commentators, ancient and modern, have offered a number of suggestions to shed light on this perplexing mystery.


Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, a modern Bible scholar, suggests that Joseph's actions are part of a plan.  The objective is to lure his brother Benjamin to Egypt and thereby expose the truth about the family's attitudes to him.  Joseph doesn't know whether his sale was a deliberate attempt to remove him from the family (like Esau and Ishmael before him) or an unplanned outburst, a violent result of a build-up of hatred within the family.  The only figure who might reveal the truth is Benjamin.  After all, Benjamin is his "full" brother, and he was too young at the time of his sale to be involved in its planning or execution.  Joseph wanted to have a chat with his brother, and the entire drama was aimed at achieving this objective.  To be seen as serious, Joseph had to act cruelly, talk in a hostile tone, and subject the brothers to some humiliation.  He meant no real harm.  His decision as to whether he could re-enter the family and expose his true identity depended upon the family's attitude towards him.  It was this information that he sought.


Nachmanides (1192-1270), the first to confront this question, proposed a rather strange theory (based on 42:9 - "He recalled his dreams").  He suggested that Joseph was trying to bring to fruition his boyhood dreams.  Joseph had dreamed as a teenager of his mastery over the family; he dreamed of his eleven brothers and even his father bowing to him (see 37:5-10).  In the wake of his successful experiences with the dreams of others (remember the butler and baker, and Pharaoh's dream, Joseph's ticket to his powerful appointment) he now seeks to realize his own dreams.  He devises a plan to bring about a situation where his family in its entirety come and bow to him.  This rather grandiose, maybe megalo-maniacal theory is opposed by some who stress the futility of the human role in the world of dreams and their actualization.  After all, God gave the dream, should He not bring its fulfillment?


     A third theory, that of the Abarbanel (1430-1508), suggests that Joseph wanted somehow to send his brothers on a journey of repentance.  Their awful act - the sale of a brother - was a supreme moral lowpoint, which had the potential to haunt the family in generations to come.  Joseph wanted his brothers to somehow repair their ways.  They needed to address their feelings of superiority over to the sons of Rachel, their insensitivity to the emotions of their father.  They needed to understand the feelings of a young adult thrown into the confusion of another land, with another language, treated like a slave.


     Joseph decided to put them (his brothers) to the test, as to whether, over the past twenty-two years(1) that they had been parted, they had changed their attitudes and character.  He sought to know whether they regretted their actions towards him.  Thus he accused them of espionage until he witnessed their repentance, as they state (42:21) "We are guilty on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed when he pleaded with us, that is why this distress has come upon us."


We shall take this last theory, of repentance and repair, and we shall delve into its workings.  We will attempt to understand the rhythm of teshuva - repentance - within the Joseph narrative.  But we shall do it from a different angle.  We will not look simply at the storyline.  Instead, we will focus on the way on which the story is told - the literary approach, as it is known.  We shall focus upon a number of striking literary observations and textual parallels which will clearly describe and indeed animate the process that Joseph engenders within the minds and souls of his brethren.  Likewise, we shall begin to understand the emotional process that Joseph undergoes during the entire process until he breaks down in tears before his brothers, revealing his true identity to them.




The literary method tries to examine the text as it is written.  The use of language and the repeated occurrence of similar phrases form the basis of this method.  This method of Bible study has been embraced both in the midrashic literature and by modern scholars.  In this sense, it forms a bridge between ancient rabbinic interpretation and modern academic thinking.  Let us give two examples to describe the method.  We will then apply some of its observations to our story.


The brothers' initial descent to Egypt is described in the following way:


Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt... and he said "... Go down there and get us provisions from there so that we may live and not die."  Then Joseph's ten brothers went down to get provisions of grain from Egypt.  But Benjamin, Joseph's brother, Jacob did not send with his brothers for he thought he might meet disaster.  Thus the sons of Israel came to get provisions among the others who had come...." (32:1-5).


     Note the way the brothers are defined.  Naturally, since they are following their father's command, they are described as the "sons of Israel."  But there is another title given to this group who is travelling to buy grain in Egypt.  They are described as "Joseph's brothers."  The Torah, as it is describing the journey to Egypt, already tells us that these ten brothers are not simply Jacob's sons, but Joseph's brothers.  They are destined for a meeting with their long lost brother.  One might take this a little further.  The entire purpose of their journey, unbeknown to them, is the examination of that relationship of brotherhood.  Many years earlier they did not act as "Joseph's brothers" but now, that relationship with its unhealed scars and buried guilt will resurface and be reopened to scrutiny.  It is interesting then, that the Torah talks of "Benjamin, Joseph's brother."  Clearly this phrase means something different in its genealogical context and in its emotional impact than the previous "Joseph's brothers," for Benjamin is a brother in a different way.  Benjamin is Joseph's only full brother being born from both Jacob and Rachel.  Jacob withholds Benjamin from the mission to Egypt because he is particularly concerned about his fate.  This fact once again raises the issue of the favoritism for Rachel's children.  To a certain degree, the entire story is about the brothers coming to terms with that special treatment.(2)


     A second example:  As we have quoted above, the brothers when they were presented to Joseph, failed to recognize him.


When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them (va-yakirem); but he acted like a stranger (va-yitnaker) towards them and spoke harshly to them ....  Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (42:7-8).


     The word which is mentioned repeatedly here in this parasha is va-yaker - a term of recognition.  Even Joseph's estrangement from his brothers is described with a variation of that verb - va-yitnaker.  Now, this word is familiar to us from earlier on in the Joseph story.


"They sent Joseph's multicolored coat and brought it to their father, and they said, "We found this.  Examine it (haker na), is it your son's coat or not?"  He recognized it... and observed mourning for his son many days" (37:32-35).


     We can claim that the Torah is connecting this meeting with the Joseph sale by the subtle but precise use of language.  This connection will become clearer as we examine some of the dialogue between the brothers.




     We have already mentioned the position of the Abrabanel, that this is a story of repair, of repentance.  Part of this theme is the admission of guilt, whether explicitly or by implication, on the part of the brothers.  After Joseph has imprisoned the brothers for three days, they emerge and are told that Simeon is to be held until they return with Benjamin.  This is their reaction:


And they said to one another, "We are truly guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; therefore all this distress has come upon us."  And Reuben said, "Did I not tell you to do no wrong to the boy, but you paid no heed.  Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (42:21-22).


     Many commentators have noted that this detail, of Joseph screaming and pleading to his brothers from the pit, is entirely absent from the story of his sale (see ch. 37).  There Joseph is silent.  Why are we given this information only at this point in the story?  Why is this the first time that we hear Joseph screaming from the pit?  Dr. Meir Weiss comments:


The recalling of this long buried episode here, at this juncture, represents the awakening of the brother's conscience.  Joseph's heartrending pleas for mercy more than they emanate from the pit, now well up from the depths of their own hearts.  This constitutes the underlying intention of the narrative in citing this detail here.  It is meant to reveal what is going on in the consciousness of the brothers at that moment, indicating their remorse.(3)


     This observation demonstrates an important emphasis within our story.  It is now, at this moment, that the brothers "hear" Joseph's cries for the first time.  This is the moment that those cries sink in.  This is the moment that they penetrate beyond the cold hard outer surface of indifference.  The Torah reports Joseph's impassioned pleas here, because it is at this moment, and not before, that the message is received.  Now they are sorry.  At the time, they were deaf, distant.


     We might suggest that this observation connects with the textual highlighting of the phrase, "va-yaker - va-yitnaker."  What does one recognize and what does one choose to ignore?  When is one deaf and when does the sound penetrate?  The whole notion of recognition is as much psychological as it is related to the senses.  We decide what to hear, what to be sensitive to, whom to be good to and whom to hate.  The brothers' discussion here talks of the incident as if it were yesterday.  In fact twenty-two years have passed.  But the confrontation with imprisonment, with the possible breakup of the family, with false accusations, bring them to renewed realizations, fresh thinking, renewed recognitions and perceptions.


     This internalization of the guilt for the sale of Joseph seems to recur in the next episode when the brothers stop at an inn on their return journey to Canaan, and find their money returned to their sacks.  Their response seems to be extreme in its heightened emotion and fear:


"My money has been returned!  It is in my bag!"  Their hearts sank; and trembling, they turned to one another saying, "What is this that God has done to us?" (42:28).


     What is so fearful about the finding of the money?  Why does it induce such feelings of impending disaster, to the point of turning to God as if he is issuing a punishment?  Rashi sees the source of their worry, that Joseph will implicate them in further wrongdoing.  But we might suggest a simpler explanation.(4)  The brothers already have their guilt of Joseph's sale firmly planted in their minds.  They know that he was sold to Egypt.  Now they return from their ordeal and find money in their sacks.  The Hebrew word for money used here is kesef - silver.  Joseph was sold down to Egypt for "twenty pieces of silver" (37:28).  The blood money has now reappeared in their sacks!  The narrative even describes it as being discovered twice (see 42:26,35), each time with an exclamation of fear and horror.  It is as if their sin is chasing them.




The brothers have been re-confronted with their sin of yesteryear.  The question is: how they will deal with their feelings of confusion and guilt?  It would appear that Joseph's plan of asking them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt, is aimed at achieving a certain resolution.  Now they - the brothers who deserted Joseph all those years ago - will have to take responsibility, to protect the son of Rachel, on a journey down to Egypt.  We will shortly explain the extent of this responsibility, but for now, one textual parallel will clearly reinforce the image of Benjamin's descent to Egypt echoing the previous descent of Joseph.


Joseph is sent to Egypt on a Yishmaelite trading caravan, "bearing gum, balm and ladanum to be taken down to Egypt" (37:25).  In our story, Jacob, after he has given reluctant permission for Benjamin's journey, advises his sons, "Take some of the choice products of the land with you... as a gift for the man - some balm and some honey, gum, ladanum...." (43:11).  We have a powerful parallel here.  The caravan in which Benjamin travels to Egypt mirrors the transport which carried his brother.  They carry the same spices.  They take the same route.  They bear the same destination.  But one thing is different.  With Joseph, he traveled there as a result of family discord and brotherly hatred.  Now, the family is united in its responsibility, in its understanding if the importance of unity.  Things have changed.


[continued in part 2]


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