Former Shaliach in Cape Town (2001-2002)
Currently Tour Guide in The David’s Citadel Museum
One of the most difficult questions about Josef, is why didn’t he inform his father that he was in Egypt. One may say that while he was in prison or during the time he was a servant for Potiphar, Josef couldn’t go back to his father or send a message. But when he became the ruler in Egypt, surely he could “pick up the phone” and let his father know about his situation! Josef, as a matter of fact, caused his father to mourn him for 22 years, how could Josef cause his father such pain?In order to answer this question, we must understand that there is Divine plan which organizes and guides all the events throughout history. Our current story begins when Josef is sent by his father on a mission, “And Israel said unto Josef: ‘Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them.’ And he said to him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said to him: ‘Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me back word.’ So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.” (Genesis 37, 13-14).
First, we should notice who exactly is sending Josef. While his father’s name is Jacob, the name used in this case is ‘Israel’. This is a clear indication that this mission is about all Am Israel; while the name Jacob is of an individual, Israel represents the national level. Josef’s mission was to go to Shechem, to check out the flock, see if his brothers are well and then go back and report to his father. It seems a simple task, but when Josef gets there, things get a little tricky: “And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying: ‘What seekest thou?’, And he said: ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock.’ And the man said: ‘They are departed hence; for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ And Josef went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.” (Genesis 37, 15-17).
Josef went to Shechem, but his brothers were no longer there. If this mission was merely an informative one, we would expect Josef to go back home and tell his father that he went to Shechem and did not see his brothers and the flocks. But Josef did not stop there. He gathers more information from a “certain man” and goes to Dothan to look for his brothers, where he will be thrown into a pit and eventually sold into slavery in Egypt.
The Ramban on the Torah explains: “And a certain man found him” – that means he was lost and didn’t know where to go. He went into a pasture seeking his brothers. It is to say that he had many reasons to go back home, but he did it to honor his father. The story further explains that G-d’s commands are truth and diligence is a lie, because G-d appointed a guide for Josef to bring him to his brothers”.
This commentary gives us a much broader perspective to understand the story of Josef and his brothers. It is important to note that Jacob was aware of the animosity between Josef and his brothers. Surely he saw that they couldn’t even say hello to him. But still he sends Josef on mission that is potentially dangerous for him. Josef himself also knew that his brothers were capable of attempting to murder him, but still he was ready to take on this dangerous task. We must understand what was so important in this mission: that Josef was ready to risk his life to achieve it.
There is something unique about Jacob and his family. From the time of Adam until Jacob, G-d gave a unique quality to those He chose. This was passed on from father to son, and always to one son only. Jacob is the one who breaks the mold; he passed this unique quality to all 12 of his sons. Every one of them had a share in the special relationship with G-d. When Josef was favored by his father, his brothers feared that once again this unique quality would be given only to one son, Josef, and they would be left out. Perhaps that truly was what Josef thought as well. However, eventually both Jacob and Josef understand that in order for each and every one of the 12 tribes to fulfil their destiny, they all have to act together in brotherhood.
That was the crucial mission Josef was sent on, which he could not leave unfinished. That is also why he could not tell his father what happened to him for so many years. Josef’s mission is to reveal the brotherhood of the 12 tribes, and he cannot stop until it is fulfilled. This goal will be reached only when Yehuda will announce “For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying: If I bring him not unto thee, then shall I bear the blame to my father for ever.” (Genesis 44, 32). Only then do all the sons of Jacob take responsibility one for another, understanding that they will only fulfil their destiny if they are united together.