Yosef's Brothers and Teshuva
This shiur is dedicated to Julie Aaronson.
Congratulations to Julie Aaronson on her "retirement" as the President of Congregation Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel after five very successful years. May you continue to go from strength to strength.
From all her children and grandchildren.
Parashat VaYigash marks the resolution of the story of Yosef and his brothers. After a poignant and impassioned speech by Yehuda, in which he describes the great harm that will come to their aged father Yaacov should Binyamin not be allowed to return with the brothers, Yosef finally reveals his true identity. In a cathartic and highly charged moment, Yosef cries out "I am Yosef! Is my father yet alive?!", but his brothers "were not able to respond to him, for they were in a state of shock." It had been twenty-two years since Yosef and his brothers had tragically and bitterly parted ways, twenty-two years since Yosef had last seen his mourning father and only full brother Binyamin. During that intervening period, Yosef had succeeded in gathering the fragments of his shattered life and painstakingly reassembling them, in a country and amid a culture far away from his native land. Although sometimes beset by the self-delusions that are often the products of success, Yosef eventually came to recognize the Providence that had guided the events of his life since his youth. In the end, he embraces the mission that God has charted for him and can honestly and with full sincerity exclaim to his brothers: "As for now, you have not been responsible for sending me here, rather it has been God's doing…"
There of course remain some troubling questions about the entire saga. Chief among them concerns the conduct of Yosef towards his brothers as well as their mutual behavior with respect to their father. For over two decades, Yaacov has been in an intense state of mourning. Never able to reconcile himself to Yosef's supposed death, he has remained anguished and pained by his disappearance. How long it has been since that terrible day dawned when the brothers returned with their feigned report of Yosef's untimely and tragic death. Recognizing the cloak of stripes that he had presented to his favorite son, now torn and tattered and stained with blood, he had cried out: "This is the mantle of my son, who has been devoured by a wild beast, for Yosef has surely been rent to pieces!" His children attempted to comfort him but he would not receive their exertions, for he said "I will go down to the grave in mourning for my son!" and indeed Yaacov never abrogated that vow.
Why did the brothers never reveal the truth about what had happened? How could they live with the knowledge that their father's somber and distressed state could be relieved by the revelation of their role in the crime of their brother's sale? And why did Yosef himself make no attempt to contact his family after his rise to prominence? Did he have no interest in ascertaining the welfare of his father or in effecting a reconciliation with his brothers? Furthermore, why did Yosef prolong the anxious situation once he had recognized his brothers? At the time of their initial descent to Egypt to secure grain during the famine, Yosef had already ascertained their identity. Heartlessly, however, he chose to hide his own and to instead subject his brothers to a protracted and painful deception that almost ended in tragedy. Why? This lesson, we shall attempt to answer some of these questions by carefully looking at what the text of the Torah itself indicates. We shall discover that a curious grammatical anomaly, occurring without fanfare, may in fact hold the key to understanding the account.
The Reflexive Verb
Let us recall that as Yosef approached his brothers in Dotan, where they had gone to graze the flocks, they saw him from afar and formulated plans to kill him. In threatening words full of sarcasm and disdain, "one brother said to his fellow: behold, here comes this 'master of dreams'. Now, let us kill him and throw his body into a pit and say that a wild beast has devoured him, then we shall see what will become of his dreams!" Reuven immediately intercedes and succeeds in convincing his brothers not to kill Yosef in cold blood, but rather to thrust him into a pit, there to die of exposure and hunger. Hoping to subsequently and secretly return, rescue Yosef and escort him home, Reuven is consternated to discover that in the meanwhile Yosef has been sold to a Yishmaelite caravan going south to ply their wares in the land of Egypt. This sale has taken place at the behest of Yehuda, who persuades his brothers not to be directly responsible for their brother's death. Curiously, although the roles of Reuven and Yehuda are prominently spelled out, the specific parts played by the other brothers in the affair remain anonymous. Were there no ringleaders who took the initiative in suggesting that Yosef be dispatched? Did no brother dare to speak in Yosef's defense?
As the years pass, Yosef's visions of greatness begin to unfold. First in the house of Potiphar and then in the service of Pharaoh, Yosef always exceeds people's expectations and his efforts are invariably crowned with success. How the thirteen years spent in the service of Potiphar and in prison seems to pass like a dream! Suddenly summoned before Pharaoh and able to interpret his dreams of plentitude and famine, Yosef is appointed viceroy. Abruptly, he is placed in charge of storing provisions for the years of scarcity soon to follow on the heels of seven years of abundance.
As hunger begins to seize hold in the surrounding lands, and Canaan as well starts to suffer from its effects, Yaacov turns to his sons and asks them to go down to Egypt to secure provisions. "Yaacov saw that in Egypt there was grain, and Yaacov said to his sons 'what are you waiting for? Behold, there is grain in Egypt, descend and purchase some so that we might live and not die.'" This they dutifully do, leaving Binyamin behind to remain with Yaacov. Upon their arrival, they unwittingly bow down to Yosef who is dressed as an Egyptian official of very high rank and personally in charge of the sale of grain. Immediately recognizing them, he speaks harshly to them and accuses them of espionage, ignoring their counter-claim that they had merely come to buy grain. "All ten of us are the sons of one father," they proclaim, "the youngest son is at home with him, and one son is no more." Repeating his claim of espionage, Yosef places them under guard for a period of three days. Seizing Shimon as hostage, he releases them on condition that they return to Canaan to fetch their youngest brother Binyamin in order to substantiate their story.
A straightforward perusal of the text seems to reveal a Yosef who is vengeful, cruel and heartless, but a careful analysis of some salient details of the narrative betrays an entirely different reading. In the original Hebrew, Yaacov addresses his sons by saying "Why titRAU? Behold, there is grain in Egypt, descend and purchase some so that we might live and not die.'" Variously rendered as "why display yourselves (as full when in fact you are hungry)?", "why quarrel among yourselves?", "why are you still here (rather than in Egypt securing sustenance)?", this expression utilizes the common root RAaH which means "to see". What is unusual here is that the root occurs in its reflexive form, a grammatical usage which is attested only one more time in the entire Tanakh (see Melachim/Kings 2:14:8). To adopt a more literal translation might therefore yield "why are you looking at yourselves?", for a reflexive verb indicates that the action is done to oneself rather than to others.
Thus, as the famine intensifies, Yaacov is surprised at his sons' seeming lack of initiative. All the surrounding peoples have started to flock to Egypt because there is to be found grain, but Yaacov's sons remain in an inertial and inactive state. "Why are you looking at yourselves?" he exclaims impatiently, "behold, there is grain in Egypt!" In other words, the brothers' lack of motivation and enthusiasm in fact betrays their true emotional state. All the while remembering how they had sold Yosef down to Egypt years before, they have been unwilling to live up to their crime ever since. At all costs they have avoided a journey to Egypt, for that was the scene of the felony; descending there would bring to mind memories too difficult to address and too painful to resolve. Had they not kept the truth from their own father these many years, first out of fear and then out of shame, attempting to suppress and to put away feelings too tortuous to even acknowledge? Now their father was inadvertently asking them to begin to come to terms with their past, with the crime of having cruelly transacted their own brother into a life of servitude and perhaps even death. "To look at oneself" is a phrase that is laden with introspection and self-examination, for the brothers realize that the unavoidable day of facing Egypt, and with it their terrible deed, is fast approaching.
Understanding Yosef's 'Cruelty'
Adopting this reading explains Yosef's harsh reaction to their arrival. "Yosef recognized his brothers and spoke harshly to them. He acted as a stranger and used stern words. He said to them 'where are you from?' and they responded 'we have come from Canaan to buy food. Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him". We can readily understand their inability to identify their younger brother; after all, he was now dressed as an Egyptian, while they were still clothed in their native Semitic dress. However, the Torah's repetition of the fact that Yosef recognized his brothers seems superfluous. What the narrative may be telling us is that there was more than discernment of physical features at issue here. Yosef sees his brothers and asks them about their origins. They respond that they are all sons of one father, that the youngest is at home, and that one "is no more". When they utilize this polite circumlocution to describe his whereabouts, Yosef realizes that the brothers still refuse to acknowledge their role in the disappearance and probable death of their hapless brother. He "recognizes" them well, for they are the exact same brothers that they were twenty-two years earlier: still evasive, still elusive, still hiding from themselves. He, on the other hand, has changed immensely, having developed a maturity beyond his years and a faith tempered by severe experience. "They did not recognize him" for he was a transformed man.
Understood thus, it is now possible to explain Yosef's ongoing ruse as a well-considered effort to bring his brothers to acknowledgement and self-realization, regret and true reconciliation. The Abarbanel (!5th century, Spain) explains that every one of Yosef's seemingly harsh acts calls to mind a similar event from years before. When Yosef accuses his brothers of being 'spies', their old charge of his bearing tales to their father concerning their conduct resurfaces. When he places them in a cell under guard, a faded memory of being cast into the pit is recalled. In other words, each one of Yosef's actions is an attempt to jog their memory, to direct them towards a recognition of the past so that they might finally move forwards.
After their release from incarceration, Yosef demands that they return home to fetch Binyamin, and in the meantime leave behind one of the brothers as a security. "The brothers said to each other: 'truly we are guilty, for we saw the pain of our brother as he cried out to us but we hearkened not. Therefore has this trouble befallen us.' Reuven responded: 'did I not tell you not to sin against the lad? You refused to listen, and now (God) is avenging his blood'". This exchange between the brothers is the most telling of all, for it demonstrates that Yosef's plan is bearing fruit. Is it not otherwise strange that the brothers' immigration difficulties with a high-ranking Egyptian official should so rankle them that they blame their misfortune on 'unrelated' events of more than twenty years earlier? Unless the traumatic events surrounding Yosef's sale have been gnawing uncomfortably on their conscience ever since, there is no other way to understand their reaction.
Hiding behind a fictitious language barrier, Yosef hears their words, for an interpreter stands between them. Momentarily turning aside to weep, he returns and seizes Shimon, having him bound before their eyes. Yosef's tears are indicative of his sincerity in the artifice, for he truly acts out of love rather than vengeance. Could it be that Shimon's imprisonment is an oblique reference to his prominent role in Yosef's own seizure? It will be recalled that the Torah never mentions exactly which brothers were instrumental in formulating the plan to kill him. This is done out of consideration, to conceal the shame of a dastardly act. All that is stated is that "one brother said to his fellow: behold, here comes this 'master of dreams'. Now, let us kill him and throw his body into a pit and say that a wild beast has devoured him, then we shall see what will become of his dreams!" Nevertheless, an oral tradition has preserved the identity of the perpetrators: "Yosef imprisoned Shimon for he was the one who cast him into the pit. He was the one who said to Levi: 'behold, here comes this master of dreams' (quoted by Rashi, 42:24). Could it be that the brother who later "at the inn opened his sack to give provender to his donkey, and found his bundle of money inside" was none other than Levi? Recall that there as well, the discovery of the money fills the brothers with dread, for had they not used the funds to purchase grain and would they not now be accused of theft?
As events unfold, the brothers come to finally own up to their act. Yosef's careful orchestration is calculated to place Binyamin in the exact same situation that he himself had experienced so long ago. Like Yosef, Binyamin is his father's favorite and the only tangible memory of Yosef that remains. Yehuda finally secures Yaacov's permission to take Binyamin in his care (recall Yehuda's role at Yosef's sale), and Yosef soon showers him with extra portions. Recall that at the conclusion of last week's Parasha, Yosef instructs his servant to conceal his silver goblet in Binyamin's sack and to then accuse him of theft. Demanding that Binyamin be turned over, the servant meets with the brothers' refusal. Returning to Yosef they tearfully plead for his release and Yehuda steps forward to entreat Yosef in consideration of Yaacov's fragile emotional state. "When our father sees that his son is no more he shall die, and we shall be guilty of having brought down our father to the grave in sadness!" How striking is this passage, for it without doubt demonstrates that the brothers have finally changed their ways. This time, the brothers act in defense of their youngest sibling, even though he is their father's favorite. This time, they cannot bear the thought of seeing their father in mourning, even though they had for the last twenty-two years borne it well. This time, Yehuda is finally able to vocalize the words: "We have an elderly father, and child of his old age whose brother has DIED…" This time, the brothers are willing suffer imprisonment so that Binyamin can go free.
Finally, now certain of his brothers' remorse and contrition, Yosef reveals his true identity. Had he done so at the moment of their initial meeting, his brothers would have never come to the state of true teshuva that characterizes their reconciliation now. The story of Yosef's brothers makes it clear that true repentance, although sometimes precipitated by external events, must nevertheless come from within. Yosef could have secured his brothers' impassioned pleas for forgiveness much earlier in the narrative, had he revealed himself immediately. But that repentance would have constituted nothing more than a startle response predicated on shock and fear, rather than a measured and considered act of real return. Our Sages say that "the Merciful One desires our hearts", for it is sincerity and truthfulness with ourselves that constitute the first steps in making restitution. Ultimately, we must strive to mend the torn and frayed threads of our own lives, the hurt feelings and tragic misunderstandings that destroy relationships. Ideally, though, that process must begin with an honest examination of our own soul.