The first encounter between Yosef and his brothers begins very strangely as the Pasuk states, “VaYar Yosef Et Echav VaYakireim VaYitnakeir Aleihem, VayDaber Itam Kashot, VaYomer Aleihem MeiAyin Batem, VaYomeru MeiEretz Kena’an Lishbor Ochel. VayYaker Yosef Et Echav, VeHeim Lo Hikiruhu. VaYizkor Yosef Et HaChalomot Asher Chalam Lahem VaYomer Aleihem Meragelim Atem, LiR’ot Et Ervat HaAretz Batem,” “Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them. He acted like a stranger toward them, and spoke to them harshly. He said to them, ‘Where do you come from?’ They said, ‘From the Land of Canaan, to buy food.’ Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamt about them, and he said to them, ‘You are spies! You have come to observe the nakedness (i.e., strategically weak elements) of the land!’” (42:7-9)
Three questions present themselves in this text. First, it seems that Yosef’s recollection of the dreams prompt him to accuse his brothers of spying; how did one lead to the other? Second, if the dreams were indeed the motivation for his treatment of his brothers, why does he speak harshly to them before this memory surfaced in his mind? Third, why does the Torah need to state twice that Yosef recognizes his brothers?
To understand this selection, a broader view of Yosef as an individual is necessary. Over the course of his life, Yosef seems to display two opposing qualities. On one hand, he displays a tendency to act rashly without considering the consequences. The beginning of Parshat VaYeishev describes how Yosef alienated his brothers, discussing with them his dreams of grandeur, where he would rule and they would be his subjects. Rashi on 37:2, quoting BeReishit Rabbah 84:7, writes that Yosef further repelled his brothers by reporting any perceived flaw to Yaakov. Earlier in this Pasuk, Rashi writes that Yosef acted childishly, fixing his hair and beautifying his eyes; this reflects a certain focus on temporary worldly elements as opposed to big-picture values. Later, during his enslavement, Yosef (according to one opinion in Sotah 36b) entered a house empty of everyone but Potiphar’s wife for the express purpose of sinning with her, ignoring the potential long-term repercussions of this one-time pleasure.
However, an opposing attribute is also visible from beginning to end. Yosef is a dreamer, one who thinks on a grand scale, a plotter of schemes and deviser of clever solutions. As a youth, he already envisions his destiny as a ruler and a leader in his family. He speaks the language of dreams, to the point where he can take what others see and transform it into a clear picture of what their futures hold in store. Yosef grows in his interpretational power over time: he moves from his own familial sphere to the lives of others – first on the individual level, for the Sar HaOfim and the Sar HaMashkim, and then on a national scale, for Pharaoh and Egypt. Moreover, he does not simply state the problems. He offers solutions and practical advice, suggesting a remedy for the troubles to come.
Yosef’s vision is not limited to dreams. Starting in the Pesukim quoted above, he carries out an elaborate plan, whose purpose is disputed among the various Mefarshim. Seemingly on the spur of the moment, Yosef hatches a complex scheme to accomplish his goal. He is able to assess the situation quickly with remarkable perceptiveness and determine the best course of action in the long run. Later, when revealing himself to his brothers, Yosef displays this same quality of vision by immediately reassuring the brothers that he does not hold them at fault for selling him – a concern which was clearly on their minds for decades (see 50:15-20). Yosef’s foresight is further displayed in 46:34 when he takes steps to separate his family from the rest of Egypt when they come to settle. At the end of his life, Yosef leaves a standing order to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, ensuring that Klal Yisrael will not forget its ultimate destiny and home.
We may suggest that Yosef displayed both of these tendencies in his actions here. Initially, “Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them,” but focused on the fact that they sold him into slavery. “He acted like a stranger toward them,” intending to repudiate them, wanting nothing to do with them. This, of course, was no new concept; it was merely the latest in a line of indications that Yosef was not interested in his family any more. Earlier in 41:51, Yosef named his son Menashe “because God caused me to forget…my father’s house,” implying that he wanted to escape his past and his heritage. Additionally, various commentators point out that Yosef neglected to contact his family even during his years of rulership. Yosef’s initial reaction to his brothers may have been a realization of the first tendency mentioned above, as Yosef acted on his gut instinct to stay away from those who had wronged him before. However, he got only as far as “Where do you come from?” before a different motive took over.
As opposed to the first time, where the Pasuk says that Yosef recognized “them,” the second time, he recognized “his brothers.” Looking outward, Yosef realized that he had maligned his brothers and thus could not entirely blame them for his fate. Looking inward, he realized that it was incorrect to continue to isolate himself from his family. No matter how hard he might try to escape, his true identity was not that of an Egyptian viceroy (albeit a moral one), but that of Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the son of Yaakov, and Yosef the dreamer. “Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamt about them” – the true perception he had from a young age, that his role was one of a leader within his family. Yosef recognized that, as he stated expressly upon revealing his identity to his brothers, “God sent me before you to establish for you survival in the land” (55:7). Upon achieving this understanding, Yosef stepped into his new role – or, looking from a different angle, his old role – without hesitation, relying on his dreams as a guideline in bringing Klal Yisrael into the next phase of its history.
We have thus far managed to answer all of the questions mentioned above. The Torah states twice that Yosef recognized his brothers to indicate that he viewed them in two different ways – first as the brothers who sold him, then as the partners in destiny whose fortunes were intertwined with his own. He initially spoke harshly as a natural reaction unrelated to his dreams, and then he began to carry out a scheme in order to bring his dreams to fruition. We have also gained a certain perspective in why exactly Yosef took such trouble – and brought pain upon his family – in order to fulfill his dreams. Perhaps he did not understand initially what was meant to emerge from his actions, but he understood that his dreams marked the path toward initiating the next stage for Bnei Yisrael. Executing this grand scheme afforded Yosef the opportunity to redeem the mistakes he had made, to become a member of the family of Yaakov again, and to lead this rediscovered family forward with his gift of superior vision.
This issue of Kol Torah celebrates the continuation of a grand vision that was implemented eighteen years ago. Perhaps those who founded the publication did not fully comprehend the consequences of their actions. But it is because they pursued their dream that Kol Torah has become an institution in many shuls and homes, that it has enriched countless Shabbos tables, and that it has given rise to four (Kein Yirbu) excellent Sifrei Halacha. It was my privilege to serve as a staff member and editor-in-chief during my years in TABC, and I hope to merit seeing this Be’eir Mayim Chayim continue to flourish and spread Torah for many years to come.
As this is the eighteenth anniversary issue, I would like to add one final point linking the aforementioned ideas to marriage, as the Mishnah in Avot states (5:21), “Ben Shemoneh Esrei Lechupah,” “One who is eighteen is ready for marriage.” At a Brit Milah, the Kehillah says twice, “Just as he entered the covenant of Brit Milah, so may he enter the realms of Torah, marriage, and good deeds.” This seems a bit premature! The baby was born just over a week ago; why are we already talking about marriage, which – according to the aforementioned Mishnah – is not supposed to happen for another eighteen years? We might answer that the Brit Milah is not an isolated event; it is the introduction to life, which sets the tone for everything to come. Brit Milah presents a vision, that every aspect of this newborn’s life, down to the most private and sensitive details, will be guided by and imbued with the spirit of Torah. In fact, marriage is particularly appropriate to mention here, as the Brit Milah indicates that the relationship between husband and wife is physically marked as one of sanctity and dedication to Hashem. Additionally, by invoking the concept of marriage at the Brit Milah, we indicate that no individual in Klal Yisrael exists in a vacuum; we are each part of a continuum linking every Jew from Avraham Avinu until the coming of Mashiach, and each individual has a role to play, starting from birth and extending to the transfer of the Mesorah to the next generation in the context of a Jewish home.
May we all merit to play our roles magnificently in the grand vision of the history of Klal Yisrael, and may we see this great drama reach the closing act of Mashiach, speedily in our days.