Former Shaliach in Dayton
A well-written thriller uses uncertainty and the unexpected in order to hold and keep our attention. Similarly, throughout Parshat Mikeitz, the Torah manages to keep us in suspense with the riveting story of Yosef’s rise to power and his encounter with his estranged brothers. Yet, we also find ourselves feeling somewhat uncomfortable as we learn about Yosef HaTzaddik’s (literally, the righteous one) apparent vindictiveness towards his brothers.
Many commentators attempt to understand the essence of the friction and the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. On one side, we have the brothers, who throw Yosef into the pit and almost kill him. Opposing them, we have Yosef, who seemingly abuses his brothers and does not bother to inform his distraught father that his beloved son is, in fact, alive.
With so many convincing approaches to the story, we may find it difficult to adhere to one viewpoint. I will provide a brief synopsis of some opinions and explanations – I am confident that there are many others – which address the question of why Yosef waits to reveal his true identity to his brothers.
According to the Ramban, Yosef wishes to see his dreams come true. (See Nechama Leibowitz’s extensive treatment of the Ramban’s approach.)
Both the Ba’al HaAkeidah and the Abarbanel opine that Yosef wants his brothers to do teshuva. Thus, the entire episode is really an elaborate strategy to recreate the circumstances of their initial sin – in the hope that this time they will refrain from sinning.
Rav Yoel Bin Nun maintains that Yosef thinks that his father Yaakov was in on the brother’s plot. However, when Yehudah reports that their father had been deceived by the brothers, Yosef realizes his mistake and reveals himself to his brothers.
David Henschke believes that Yosef himself acts inappropriately. Even in his youth, he curls his hair. Furthermore, he distances himself from his brothers; he does not break down and reveal his true identity until the very end. Also, Yosef wants his only brother Binyamin to come to Egypt and, therefore, plants the goblet in the sack, etc.
These ideas and solutions are assorted approaches to the convoluted plotline. But, in my humble opinion, the key to the story can be found at the climax – the beginning of Parshat VaYigash when Yosef finally reveals himself:
“And Yosef could not endure with all those standing before him, and he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me,’ and no one stood with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in weeping; and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ but his brothers could not answer him because they were alarmed by his presence.” (Breishit 45:1-3)
Throughout the entire affair, Yosef has been gearing up for the events of the last sentence above. The commentators wonder what Yosef is asking. Does he not know that his father is still alive? After all, even during the initial meeting, the brothers say that their father is still alive, and they keep repeating this fact. In fact, the main point of Yehudah’s speech is that Yaakov may die if Binyamin is brought down to Egypt, because:
“His soul is bound up with his soul.” (Breishit 44:30)
The Seforno explains:
“Is my father still alive – How can it be that he did not die because of his anxiety for me?”
In his speech, Yehudah stresses that the brothers now identify with their younger brother. Moreover, he shows that the brothers recognize that Yaakov and Binyamin cannot be separated – “his soul is bound up with his soul.” Thus, immediately following the speech, Yosef turns to his brothers and says, “I am Yosef,” the one who you separated from my father twenty-two years ago. He then adds, “Is my father still alive?” – can he still be living after all these years?
“But his brothers could not answer him because they were alarmed mipanav” (literally, “by his face” – loosely, “by his presence”). Why does the Torah use the word “mipanav”? According to Rashi, the brothers are alarmed, because they are ashamed. They are literally startled by Yosef’s face, which resembles Yaakov’s face. (Yosef is called Yaakov’s “ben zekunin.” According to one interpretation, this refers to the fact that Yosef’s ziv akunin – his face – is similar to Yaakov’s.) In other words, the brothers suddenly see their father’s face before them, and they finally understand how much pain they have caused Yaakov over the years. In essence, they wince from shame, because it is as if Yaakov’s own image is hovering before them.
This approach follows the Ba’al HaAkeidah and the Abarbanel, who say that Yosef wants his brothers to do teshuva. Yet, the brothers must not only atone for selling Yosef; they also need to do teshuva for wronging their father Yaakov during twenty-two long years. Yosef stage-manages his encounter with his brothers in order to ensure that they are able to internalize how much their father suffered on their account.
Only when the brothers finally comprehend the magnitude of their sins – both with respect to Yosef and with respect to Yaakov – is Yosef able to send his father the welcome tidings that he is, in fact, alive.