When the brothers come before Yosef, they make a seemingly irrelevant remark. Yosef, recognizing his brothers, tests their character by calling them out as spies. The brothers curiously respond by citing their brotherhood: “Kulanu Bnei Ish Echad Nachnu,” “We are all the sons of one man” (BeReishit 42:11). Ramban interprets the brothers’ reply as an attempt to give Yosef confidence in their stature based on the reputation of Yaakov. This opinion must assume two points. Firstly, Ramban believes that Yaakov is a man of high reputation, which could be disputed, based on his apparently sly dealings with Lavan, Eisav and Shechem. However, in the aftermath of the Shechem incident, when two of his sons kill all the males of the city, he admonishes the brothers for damaging his reputation, which makes it appear as though he has a positive reputation to lose. This, however, brings us to the second assumption: that Yaakov’s reputability lends itself to his children, which is clearly doubtful due to the incident in Shechem.
Da’at Zekeinim, in a slightly different vein, claims that due to the danger inherent in treasonous activity, family members, concerned for each other’s lives, would refrain from spying. Thus, the brothers reassure Yosef that they are not plotting anything. However, it is equally possible that a shared father could facilitate conspiracy.
Rashi quotes a Midrash that is particularly satisfying, especially because of the inconclusiveness of the logical approaches quoted above. In their anxious states, the brothers may be inclined to give a poorly worded speech. Instead, according to Rashi, their response is guided by Hashem. The word “Kulanu,” “all of us,” refers to everyone in the room, including Yosef; all of them are “Bnei Ish Echad,” “sons of one man.” This may be the most effective answer possible, as it tugs at the already strained emotional state of their estranged brother.
Nonetheless, Yosef does not back down, again questioning their integrity by claiming that they are, indeed, spies who have come to spot the weaknesses of the land. Rashi hones in on the somewhat radical accusation and relates it to the brothers’ previous response. He presents the brothers’ suspicious behavior of entering the city separately, which is even more shocking due to their alleged brotherhood. At this, the brothers oddly return to the same general refutation, presenting their familial relations as some sort of saving grace. This time they add in a few details: “VeHineih HaKaton Et Avinu HaYom VeHaEchad Einenu,” “The youngest is with our father today, and one is not here” (42:13), slipping in references to Binyamin and their partner in conversation, Yosef.
Yosef seemingly can no longer control himself. He exclaims “Hu Asher Dibarti Aleichem Leimor Meraglim Atem,” “It is as I have said to you: you are spies!” Yosef appears to be demanding of his brothers, “Why do you keep talking to me about your family? You’re being accused of treason!”
Rav Avraham Ben HaRambam, true to his family’s lineage of looking at God as relatively transcendental, quotes R’ Maimon, his grandfather, as saying that Yosef must have asked about the family to elicit such a reaction from the brothers. This is in sharp contrast to Rashi’s answer, however. According to the latter commentary, Hashem plays a larger role in this story than meets the eye.
This past Monday, many observed a Ta’anit Tzibur, a public fast, a petition to Hashem for rain in Israel. As I stood in the middle of Minchah thinking about Israel, the year I spent there, and how much we have become spiritually dependent on our homeland, I was struck with a fundamental question: if we have a covenant with God that if we follow his legislation then He will give us rain, and if we sin, He will not, then how could it be that we had enough rain in Israel last year, yet this year we are struggling? Have we fallen so far in the last year? Or is God simply not as interactive as I thought or as I was taught?
This thought was a shock to my system. I couldn’t believe, at my previously conceived state of spiritual development, that such a “blasphemous” thought was possible. Then I remembered Yaakov. It is the dark times that force us to confront the true demons of our minds, as Yaakov does when he wrestles with the Ish before encountering Eisav after more than twenty-two years of hiding from his brothers. As Yosef does in the house of Potifar when facing the temptations of his master’s wife, I thought of my father’s face: my father Yisrael. When Yaakov waits to send Binyamin down to Mitzrayim until the last possible moment, even as he is sitting in the darkness of famine, he must have faith that Hashem would provide for him. Why else would he wait until action is the only option? Yaakov has faith in Hashem even after He has not given him sustenance. He sends his youngest son to Mitzrayim with faith that God would provide. It is in Mitzrayim, of course, that Hashem provides the groundwork from which the nation of Bnei Yisrael is formed. Yaakov does not despair when Hashem’s hand is not apparent, and he is rewarded for his faith. With this in mind, I pray that Hashem, in the Zechut of Eretz Yisrael, will continue to provide for our Holy Land. May we all be Zocheh to be united eternally in our homeland.