Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun
Why, during all his years of servitude and his rise to power, did Yosef not send a letter to his father telling him that he was still alive? What could possibly justify the anguish he caused his aged and loving father?
I would like to propose a solution which accounts for many perplexing aspects of the story. Our entire outlook on this story changes if we accept the fact that YOSEF DID NOT KNOW THAT HIS BROTHERS HAD FOOLED HIS FATHER with the coat, the blood, and the lie that Yosef had been devoured by wild animals. Such thoughts never occurred to him! Hence it was Yosef 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 Yosef´s point of view. Egypt is, after all, close to Canaan, and Ya´akov was a rich, important and influential man, with international familial and political connections. The Midianites or Yishmaelites who brought Yosef to Egypt were his cousins; is it possible that no one from that caravan could be located in all those years? Yishmael, Medan and Midian were all children of Avraham; even after they had migrated to Eastern lands, they certainly could be located. Ya´akov had manpower enough to marshal herds and flocks as a gift for Esav; surely he had manpower to search for Yosef. We know that Ya´akov does not search for his son, as he thinks Yosef is dead, but Yosef has no way of knowing this. Yosef´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 by and no one comes. Yosef´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? Why did they strip off my coat the moment I arrived and throw me in the pit? Didn´t he know how dangerous Shimon and Levi are, especially since I had brought him negative reports about them? What did my brothers tell him when they returned? Can he really have had no idea at all of what they had done?” The voices resound and intertwine, eliciting alternating waves of fear and helplessness, of anger and hatred. Being thrown into the pit, the kidnapping to Egypt, slavery – a few months would be enough to drive him mad – and no one ever comes.
Finally, a quiet acceptance of his fate replaced the anguish. His brothers must have succeeded in convincing Ya´akov, and HE HAD BEEN DISOWNED. Leah must have convinced Ya´akov that his vain and arrogant son, who dreamt of ruling over them all, had to be disposed of before he destroyed the household. Had Avraham not consented to Sarah´s insistence that he expel Yishmael, despite his love for Yishmael? Had not God Himself sanctioned this? Had not Esav lost his birthright? And had not Yitzchak capitulated to Rivka in choosing one son over another? Perhaps God Himself had told Ya´akov that Yosef had sinned and had to be expelled.
Thirteen years of torment brought in their wake a quiet acceptance of his fate. He would live according to his father´s traditions but apart from his home. He would not sin against God even though He had rejected him; he would not be seduced by his master´s wife. Years later, when Yosef 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 separately from his family´s. Yosef gives expression to this feeling expression in the name he gives his eldest son, born of an Egyptian wife: He called him Menashe, because “God has made me forget (nashani) all my labor and my father´s house.” (41:51) To forget his father´s house! Yosef is more subdued when his second son is born: [He named him] Efraim, because “God has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my suffering.” (41:52)
Yosef´s entire world is built on the misconception that his father has renounced him, while Ya´akov´s world is destroyed by the misconception that Yosef is dead. Yosef´s world is shaken when his brothers stand before him, not knowing who he is, and bow down to him. At that moment, he must question the new reality he has created for himself; “he remembers the dreams he dreamt about them” and 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 Binyamin behind, so that his maternal brother can tell him all that has transpired. After the conversation with Binyamin, he will be able to decide whether to remain silent or to speak out. All Yosef´s actions from this point onward – including arresting Shimon – are directed towards this goal. He wanted both to get information (could Shimon have been interrogated in prison?) and to force Ya´akov to send Binyamin to Egypt. The cup was planted in his sack not to test Yehuda – how could he have predicted his older brother´s outburst? – but just the opposite. Yosef assumed the brothers would not be able to save Binyamin, and this would be his means of keeping Binyamin with him, ostensibly as his prisoner. This was Yosef´s plan to find out what had happened and how to deal with it. Yehuda´s response was an attempt to obtain Binyamin´s release by appealing for mercy for his aged father. In so doing, he tells Yosef – totally unintentionally – exactly what Yosef wanted so desperately to hear, thereby freeing him and eventually Ya´akov, 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)
Yosef needs to hear no more. He finally realizes the naked truth: No one has cut him off at all! Not Leah, not his brothers and, least of all, his father. He has not been forgotten! Yosef 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 Yosef; 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?
Each of the players in our scene had a plan, and pursued that plan. But the plan which was finally revealed was a higher plan, geared at bringing Ya´akov´s family to Egypt and creating the Jewish people.