Our sedra sees the end of the three-part series of the Joseph story. Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers - much to their surprise - and Yaakov makes his way down to Egypt. We are also given a full genealogy of the seventy people (the tribes and their families) who came down to Egypt. Yaakov meets Pharaoh and the Jews are given the land of Goshen to live in, and are financially supported from the royal coffers. Towards the end of the sedra, we are told about the famine that struck Egypt (as Yosef had predicted from Pharaoh’s dreams), and Yosef sells the royal stocks of food to the people; which ends up with Yosef buying all the strips of land in Egypt for Pharaoh.

Now, as a matter of policy, I try to make sure that I do not repeat the same dvar Torah twice. And so far I have only repeated the same dvar Torah once in a blue moon. However, there is one exception. This dvar Torah is so perceptive, relevant, and necessary for the basic (pshat) understanding of the psukim (and has a good source for it) that it is one that should be repeated year after year. So, you might recognise this dvar Torah, but for the ones who read it last year, I have brushed it up this year and added a central Midrash which brings out the point even more clearly. So, without further ado, here is that fantastic dvar Torah; heard from Rav Avigdor Neventzal.

The essential question is why didn’t Yosef’s brothers realise that this mysterious Egyptian viceroy chap was their brother? But both the question and its eventual answer need explanation, so let’s embark upon reliving the chain of events which span the Yosef episode - but from a different perspective. We are [too] used to going through the ‘Joseph story’ from an informed onlooker’s perspective; knowing that the viceroy is really Yosef and knowing that the brothers are unaware of this. Let’s look at the story from the brothers’ perspective this time, and the story will take on an entirely new facet…

The brothers, for whatever reason (and several reasons are offered), sell their brother Yosef into slavery. He was originally sold to Yishma’elim, but was eventually sold on to Egyptians, and made it down to Egypt. For a slave to eventually make his way to Egypt in those days was not particularly rare; Egypt was the major power then - so the possibility of Yosef ending up there would/should not have been completely out of the brothers’ minds. In fact, Rashi tells us (42:13) that the reason the brothers entered Egypt through different gates was to spread out and look for Yosef - it seems that the brothers did think that Yosef was in Egypt. Anyway, we go on. Years later, ten of the brothers (all but Binyamin) are sent down to Egypt to purchase food due to the famine in the Land of Israel, and they meet with the viceroy of Egypt. This viceroy was Yosef, of course, but ‘the Egyptian viceroy’ to the ‘unbeknown’ brothers. We are told that the brothers did not recognise Yosef for he now had a beard (Rashi 42:8). Now a beard is not too major a change of appearance, and there surely must have been a resemblance of the brother they once knew in the viceroy’s features. One may thus ask why seeing this viceroy did not ring a bell in the brothers’mind?

Next, the viceroy accuses the brothers of being spies, and they respond by saying that they are actually all brothers and they have left one brother back in Cana’an. The viceroy then asks them to prove this by bringing down this remaining brother to Egypt, and meanwhile takes Shimon as a captive. This is extremely puzzling, and the following questions were no doubt surfacing in the brothers’ minds: since when did people get a chance to protest their innocence at being accused as spies in ancient Egypt? And what does it prove if they are all brothers; maybe they are brothers who are spies? And what proof of not being spies is it to bring someone who may or may not be their brother; as far as the viceroy is concerned, they could take a man off the street and pretend it’s their brother. And which ruler would run the risk of letting nine spies free whilst only keeping one in prison? And if this viceroy really thought that they were spies, why did he fill their bags with food anyway? One can assume that these questions were going through the brothers’ minds; they must have realised that something funny was going on, and this viceroy chap was behaving in a most uncharacteristic fashion. At the very least they must have wondered why the viceroy was treating them with such kindness relative to what should have occurred normally.

The story continues. The brothers manage to get their father’s permission to bring Binyamin down to Egypt, and Shimon is returned to them as promised. The viceroy, in apology for his false accusations towards them, arranges for a slap-up meal in his house for the brothers with him. Unsurprisingly, it was hardly the protocol for a leader of ancient Egypt to treat those he had accused of being spies with a lavish meal with him at his house to apologise. In fact, it probably wasn’t even protocol to give someone accused of being a spy enough time to establish his innocence in the first place! Did the brothers not think/realise that this was not normal? Then, this viceroy sits the brothers in age order in accordance with their mothers, saying ‘Yehudah is kingship so sits at the front, Reuven the firstborn sits next to him,’ etc. and he went on to say that ‘Binyamin should sit next to me’ (the ‘viceroy’) for ‘we both have no living mother’ (Rashi 43:33). Why didn’t the brothers ‘click’ that this information indicated that this viceroy was their brother Yosef? Eventually, after the brothers leave and the cup is planted in Binyamin’s sack, the brothers return and Yosef reveals his true identity to them. Now what is the reaction to this revelation? The pasuk (45:3) says that the brothers were completely speechless. Nobody turned to his brother and said ‘I thought it might have been Yosef,’ or ‘I told you so’ [or ‘who placed their bets on Yosef at 5/1!]. It seems that the thought that this might be Yosef did not enter the brothers’ minds at any point during this entire episode.

The question is, in summary, it seems that the brothers had many clues: that a) this viceroy was behaving differently to them, b) they thought that Yosef was in Egypt c) this viceroy must have been rather familiar in appearance to them, d) he had told them their family history. [e) they believed in HaShem and knew their family history of Divine providence, so it would not have been utterly strange for HaShem to have caused them to meet up with their brother.] So why did they not realise that this was Yosef? In fact, we shall quote a Midrash which make things even more surprising. The Midrash Rabbah 93:8 reports that when this ‘viceroy’ was about to reveal himself, he first said to the brothers ‘your brother who you sold is in the house,’ and started calling out ‘Yosef ben Yaakov come out.’ The brothers started looking round the room in all four directions to see where their brother would appear from. They had no idea that the viceroy was Yosef. And even when he did reveal himself by saying ‘I am Yosef,’ the above Midrash reports that the brothers did not believe him! Yosef had to prove himself by showing them a certain part of his body which proved his Jewishness (not getting too graphic; this is a family dvar torah!). Why did the brothers have no idea whatsoever that the viceroy was Yosef?

The answer is that if the viceroy was Yosef, this would have been too major a consequence for the brothers. The reason is because this would be an open demonstration and admission that they were incorrect in selling their brother into slavery; for his dreams had indeed come true, and HaShem had made him succeed. This would also be added to the fact that they would now have to admit to their father after all these years that they had secretly sold their brother into slavery. In other words, guessing that this was Yosef would mean openly admitting that the last two decades or so of their lives had been lived in guilt. Consequently, the thought never entered their heads - despite all the clues - that this viceroy was really Yosef, for it was subconsciously never allowed to be an option. This explains why, even when Yosef did reveal himself, the brothers could not accept this conclusion. In fact, this is why, when the pasuk (45:3) tells us that the brothers were speechless after Yosef had revealed himself, Rashi says ‘because of the embarrassment.’ Surely shock would have been a more fitting emotion here; why embarassment? The answer is that it was the embarrassment of being suddenly shown to be wrong all these years. This is also why one of the first things Yosef does after revealing himself to the brothers is to tell them not to be angry/feel guilt for selling him (45:5) - for the implication of Yosef revealing his true identity was that the brothers were mistaken for selling him.

The lesson to learn here is one of modeh al ha’emes (Pirkei Avos 5:10), I.e. acquiring the ability to be objective about things and admitting truth - regardless of how painful the personal consequences might be. We are very good at twisting the facts to fit with our expectations or perceptions of what did, should, or would have happened, and it is not a great attribute to have. For if the Torah went out of its way to relate to us every detail of the Yosef episode to give us the lesson that the brothers erred - at their lofty spiritual level - in some aspect of this midah, then it’s important to make that effort to make ourselves able to receive and absorb this lesson to the best of our abilities.

Have a great Shabbos!

Add comment

Have something to say?
Please make your comment below!
All comments are reviewed prior to publication. Absolutely NO loshon hara or anything derogatory or hurtful to anyone will be permitted on the website.

Security code