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The Transformation of a Family (2)

Rav Alex Israel




It is not only the brothers who are undergoing a process of healing and repair.  Joseph too has certain emotions to work through.  When the brothers appear before Joseph, together with Benjamin, he has to make a quick exit.  He becomes overwhelmed by emotion and goes to a back room to cry.


He saw his brother Benjamin, his mother's son.... Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling towards his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there.  Then he washed his face, reappeared, and - now in control of himself - gave the order to serve the meal (43:29-31).


     This is not the first time that Joseph cries, and not the last.  On their first meeting, Joseph cried too.  In response to their expressions of guilt, Joseph "turned away from them and wept" (42:24).  In the first instance, it was not simply the appearance of his brothers which gave him cause to lose his composure.  Apparently, it was hearing his brothers discuss their role in his possible murder and eventual sale to slavery that makes him weep.  Now the image of Benjamin surrounded, protected by his brothers, gives him cause to cry.  We wonder why.  Is it just the sight of his brother who he has not seen since childhood?  Or is it other images, of himself reflected in Benjamin, of the togetherness of the family which makes him cry?


Next time that he cries will be the moment that he reveals his identity.  What causes Joseph's confession?  Until now, he has regained his composure.  Even when he weeps, he manages to hide it from his brothers.  He is "the man," "the master of the land."  What brings Joseph to let his secret out?




I believe that the entire plan comes to a climax with the story of the silver goblet and Judah's desperate speech.  Joseph has his silver goblet slipped into Benjamin's sack.  As the brothers are making their way out of Egypt, the ordeal seemingly behind them, they are chased by Egyptian guards and the goblet is found in Benjamin's sack.  They are aghast at the accusations leveled against them and they respond by saying that if the goblet is found with any of them, that person should be put to death.  Now is the test.  Do they leave Benjamin, or do they seek to protect him?  How do they relate to the son of Rachel?


The Abarabanel sharpens the story here by reminding us of an earlier story which mirrors this one in a rather uncanny way.  Remember Jacob leaving Laban's house with his entire fami ly.  Laban chases him (see 31:22-32) in search of his "gods" - certain cult objects of divination that have disappeared with Jacob's family.  (This is the explanation of terafim according to many mefarshim).  Jacob is sure that no one of his family has taken them and proclaims:


"Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! ...  But Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them (31:32).


     Indeed it is possible that Rachel's early death was due to this very curse by her husband Jacob!


The story of the goblet mirrors that story.  Here too, the brothers are chased for an object that has been stolen.  The silver goblet is described as an object of telling the future; "It is the very one from which my master drinks and which he uses for divination" (44:5); and here too the brothers, the truth unbeknown to them, issue a death warrant against the thief of the object.(5)


Far be it from your servants to do anything of the kind! ...  Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, will become slaves to my lord (44:7-9).


     So, should Benjamin die?  Is he simply his mother's son?  Perhaps the brothers now have good reason to feel animosity towards Benjamin.  The Abarbanel tries to explain Joseph's motivation here:


He thought maybe they (the brothers) will think it is true, that Benjamin did indeed steal the goblet, just as his mother Rachel had stolen her father's gods.  Maybe they will say "the person who has sinned shall die" and will not plead on his behalf passionately, not due to any hatred, but simply out of their sense of embarrassment.  Thus Joseph commanded that the goblet be placed in their sacks... and if the brothers would have pity on him, and try in earnest to release him from slavery, expressing their love for him, then, they would be in Joseph's eyes as complete penitents (ba'alei teshuva gemurim)....


Indeed, the brothers' immediate reaction here is one of total support for Benjamin.  They respond, "We are then, ALL slaves of my lord" (44:16).  They all take the blame collectively.




But Judah takes things a stage further.  He steps in and speaks to Joseph.  His speech is incredible because it relates in the deepest way to having learnt the message of the Joseph story.  Judah expresses awareness and acceptance of the special status of the Rachel faction of the family.  He takes it as given, without comment.  Moreover, he shows full understanding of what the loss of Joseph had done to his father, and what another loss of a "son of Rachel" might do to him.


Judah approached and said "I beg of you my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord's ears... My lord asked his servant's, 'Do you have a father or brother?'  And we said to my lord, 'We have an old father with a child of his old age, the youngest.  His brother is dead and he alone remains from his mother, and his father loves him.'  And you said... 'Bring him down...'  And we said... 'The lad cannot leave his father.  If he were to leave him, his father would die.'" (44:17-22).


Judah continues to relate Joseph's insistence that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, and Jacob's reluctance, indeed his refusal to allow Benjamin to go.


Your servant, my father said to us "You know that my wife bore me two sons.  One is gone from me and I said surely he has been devoured, nor have I seen him since.  If you take this one too from me and disaster befalls him, you will bring my white head down to the underworld in evil" (44:27-29).


     Judah then recalls his pledge to his father, "If I do not bring him back, I shall stand guilty to my father for ever" and it is at this point that Joseph breaks down.


This speech "is a point for point undoing, morally and psychologically, of the brothers' earlier violation of their fraternal and filial bonds"(6).   Here, Judah, the leader of the Leah faction in the family, has accepted the special status of Rachel.  He is even willing to refer to her as Jacob's wife as if there were no other.  He understands the meaning of loss, as it would kill his father.  He also has learned the meaning of responsibility.  His ultimate statement must be when he expresses readiness to replace Benjamin:


Let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers (44:33).


     It is at this point that Joseph cannot stand the masquerade anymore.  His brothers have demonstrated a complete reversal of their acts two decades earlier.  Joseph has witnessed with his own eyes, the remorse, the care and love, the willingness to put their lives on the line for his brother, his surrogate, Benjamin.  There is no more room for suspicion, no more room for acrimony and hatred.  The wounds are now healed.




This theory works from a dual perspective.  From the brothers' point of view they have demonstrated their changed nature.  But from Joseph's perspective it works as well.  For Joseph to be able to re-enter the family smoothly, for his re-appearance not to create a severe trauma in the family, the moral and familial stain of his sale had to be cleared up in advance of that re-appearance.  It is through Joseph's testing of his brothers and through their responsible stance throughout, that the sons of Jacob could be re-united, becoming the people of Israel. 


It is with this saga that a major theme of Sefer Bereishit comes to a close.  Fraternal hatred and struggle, and rejection from the family have typified the book of Bereishit unto this point.  Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob - these are all stories of struggle and rejection.  Now, for the first time, we witness a family which has resolved its struggles and infighting.  It has been a painful process, but maybe a cathartic process of growth and maturation.  From now on, the Children of Israel will work together, live together, support each other - all twelve brothers, in unity.






(1) Joseph was 17 at the start of the story (37:2).  He is 30 when he rises to the position of governor/viceroy of Egypt (41:46).  His brothers come to Egypt after the 7 years of plenty and 2 years of famine (see 41:54  and 44:6), thus the calculation of 22 years.


(2) For more on this method of family connections creating a certain drama within the text, see Nechama Leibowitz, Torah Insights, pp. 172-173.


(3) Meir Weiss (quoted in Nechama Leibowitz's studies pg. 464) Melekhet Sippur Ha-mikra, Molad, Tishrei 5723, pp. 402-406.


(4) See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, pg. 139.


(5) Other parallels between the stories are evident too.  For example the use of the "good" and "evil" theme, cf. 31:25,29 with 44:4.


(6) Ibid. pg. 174. 

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