A Tragic Misunderstanding

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





By Rav Zvi Shimon



The following is an abridgement of an article written by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a teacher in the Herzog Teachers' College affiliated with Yeshivat Har Etzion, which originally appeared in Hebrew in the Megadim Torah Journal (volume 1).



A Tragic Misunderstanding


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) poses a fascinating question, one which continues to puzzle all who study the book of Genesis:


"How is it that Joseph, 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 Hebron, 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 to Gen. 42:9)?"


            The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) poses the same question, but more bluntly:


"Why did Joseph 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?"  (chap. 4, question 4)


            The Ramban's answer to his question is that Joseph's goal was to guarantee the fulfillment of his two dreams (see chapter 37).


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


            Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe Arama, Spain, 1420-1494) in his commentary Akedat Yitzchak, 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 silly to strive to fulfill dreams, as the fulfillment does not depend on the dreamer's will."  (Akedat Yitzchak 29:9; see also Abarbanel, 41:6)


            Clearly, Joseph's dreams are prophetic, and not mere nonsense.  However, they are a form of ruach ha-kodesh (holy inspiration), rather than pure prophecy.  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.  It is clear, however, that the Ramban disagrees and considers these dreams to be full-fledged prophecies.


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


"Joseph was the ruler of the land; it was he who provided for all the inhabitants and Joseph's brothers came and bowed to the ground before him (42:6)."


            The ten brothers, excluding Benjamin who was at home, had come to Egypt to obtain grain - the sheaves in Joseph's first dream (37:7).  As predicted by the dream, the brothers needed to bow down before his sheaf, his wealth.  The Ramban believes that the ten brothers' bowing down at the first meeting was not the realization of the first dream, as the eleventh brother, Benjamin, had not yet bowed down to him.  However, careful analysis of Joseph's first dream reveals that the number of brothers binding sheaves is not specified.  Benjamin could not have been in the fields with them at the time, as he was eight years younger than Joseph and hence only nine years old!  Even in a dream, Joseph could not have seen Benjamin working in the fields.  It is therefore more plausible that the first dream was fulfilled when the brothers arrived in Egypt the first time without Benjamin.


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


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


            The eleven stars (37:9), eleven brothers, bowed down to Joseph due to his own importance as second to the king of Egypt, without any direct connection to the grain; now, it was their father's turn:


"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 Joseph'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 Joseph.  The entire family (other than his mother, who was no longer alive) bowed down to Joseph - albeit indirectly in Jacob's case - without realizing the full significance of their actions.  This scene is repeated when Judah begs for Benjamin's safety and refers to Jacob repeatedly (four times) as "your servant our father (44:14, 24, 27, 30-31)."  The dreams had all come true BEFORE Jacob's arrival in Egypt.


            In support of his contention that Joseph did not contact his father all these years in order to fulfill his dreams, the Ramban cites a verse that actually contradicts his theory:


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


            Clearly, only at this point does Joseph remember his dreams, as he suddenly realizes that the first dream has been fulfilled (see Rashi to 42:9).  Since it is only at this stage that Joseph remembers his dreams they could not have guided his behavior throughout his years in Potiphar's household or while in prison.  Since Joseph only remembers his dreams when his brothers arrive in Egypt, why did he not send word to Jacob before that?  As ruler of Egypt, it was certainly within his capacity to do so.


            Ramban himself apparently realized the difficulties inherent in attempting to coordinate the story of the goblet (chapter 44) with the dreams.  He therefore proposes a second motive for Joseph's actions at this point:


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


            Abarbanel agrees:


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


            In the words of Akedat Yitzchak:


"Joseph'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 Joseph simply wanted to keep Benjamin behind, after their brothers had gone home "only the one with whom it [the goblet] is found shall be my slave; but the rest of you shall go free" (44:10).  It might be that Joseph simply wanted to hear from Benjamin all that had transpired since he was sold.  He may have wanted Benjamin's cooperation in establishing the tribes of Rachel as a separate entity.  But it seems utterly far-fetched that Joseph planned the affair of the goblet to test his brothers' attitude toward Benjamin.  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 Benjamin with him as they had left Shimon?  Would this have proven either that they were not sorry for what they had done to Joseph or that they did not love Benjamin?  Does submission to the power of a tyrant prove anything?


             Furthermore, at no point in Judah's long speech is there any mention of the brothers' feelings towards each other or towards Benjamin.  Judah's expressed concern is with his "old father" whom they left behind, and who seemed to interest this "ruler" so much.  Jacob is Judah's last resort, and it is on this point that Judah focuses, hinting all the while at Joseph's responsibility for any outcome.


             Finally, Joseph had already heard his brothers express regret at their behavior towards him when they arrived in Egypt the first time.  Their confession was elicited freely without any pressure whatsoever; they never imagined Joseph could understand them "because the interpreter was between them" (42:23).  Their 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).'


             At no later time does Joseph acquire new insights into their character.  Therefore the motivation behind Joseph's behavior and his framing of Benjamin with the stolen goblet could not have been the desire to test whether or not the brothers repented for their sin.


            Thus, in our attempt to understand Joseph'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, Joseph 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.


The Solution


             Our entire outlook on this story changes if we understand that Joseph did not know that his brothers had fooled his father with the coat, the blood, and the lie that Joseph had been devoured by wild animals.  Such thoughts never occurred to him!  So, it was Joseph who spent thirteen years of slavery in Egypt and the following years of greatness wondering: "Where is my father?  Why has no one come to look for me?"  All the factors are now reversed when seen from Joseph's point of view.  Egypt is, after all, close to the land of Canaan, and Jacob was a rich, important and influential man with international familial and political connections.  The Midianites or Ishmaelites (37:28) who brought Joseph to Egypt were his cousins; is it possible that no one from that caravan could be located in all those years?  We know that Jacob did not search for his son because he thought Joseph was dead, but Joseph had no way of knowing this.


             Joseph's wonder at his father's silence is joined by a terrible sense of anxiety which grows stronger over the years, as seasons and years pass and no one comes.  Joseph's anguish centers on his father: the voice inside him asking "where is my father?" is joined by another harsh voice: "Why did my father send me to my brothers that day?(see 37:13)  Perhaps, his brothers had succeeded in convincing Jacob to disown Joseph!  Years later, when Joseph rides in the viceroy's chariot, when he shaves his beard and stands before Pharaoh, it is clear to him that God must have decreed that his life would be lived separate from his family.  He expressed this feeling in the name he gave his eldest son, born of an Egyptian wife:


"...he called him Menasheh, because God has made me forget (nashani) all my labor and my father's house" (41:51).


To forget his father's house!


             Apparently, then, Joseph's entire world is built on the misconception that his father had renounced him, while Jacob's world was destroyed by the misconception that Joseph was dead.  Joseph's world was shaken when his brothers stood before him, unaware of his true identity, and bow down to him.  At that moment, he questions this new reality:


"...he remembers the dreams he dreamt about them..."(42:9)


             He is thrown back into the past.  Stalling for time, he begins a line of inquiry - and action - which is geared to one end: to find out why his father had rejected him, if at all.  He aims to keep Benjamin behind so that his maternal brother can tell him all that has transpired.  This was Joseph's plan to find out what had happened and to deal with it.


             Moreover, Judah's response was an attempt to obtain Benjamin's release by appealing for mercy for his aged father.  In so doing, he tells Joseph - totally unintentionally - exactly what he wanted so desperately to hear, thereby freeing him and eventually Jacob, from their mutual errors.


"Your servant our father said to us:

'You know that my wife bore me two sons.

One has left me;

I said he was devoured and I have not seen him since.

(If) you take this son too and tragedy befalls him

you will bring my old age down to she'ol in agony'" (44:24-30).


             Joseph needs to hear no more.  He finally realizes the naked truth: No one has cut him off at all!  He has not been forgotten!


Joseph could no longer restrain himself

before all who were standing before him,

and cried:

'Have every one leave me!'...

and he cried out loud...

and he told his brothers:

I am Joseph:

is my father still alive.? (45:1-3)


             Does he live?  Is he yet my father, who loves me and has not forgotten me?  Is it possible?  All these years Joseph thought he was rejected by his father.  Finally, that sense is exposed as a tragic misunderstanding.