In Parashat VaYigash, Yosef seems to experience an identity crisis. Until this point, Yosef was the youngest in his family and the outlier of its social circles. He is the brother that always wanted to belong, but did not seem sufficiently wise and equipped to find his spot in the family dynamic. He tried to find opportunities to become a part of something with his brothers, whether it be by telling his brothers about his dreams (BeReishit 37:5) or going out with them in the fields (37:13). Despite his many efforts to find his place in the family, Yosef seemed to always fail. As time went on and Yosef rose to power in Mitzrayim, yet another opportunity emerges to become closer with his brothers. Due to the famine, the brothers are forced to go to Egypt to acquire food (42:3). One would assume that when Yosef sees his brothers, he would try his hardest to fit in with them; however, when Yosef reveals his real identity to his brothers, he asks his brothers, “HaOd Avi Chai,” “Is my father still alive” (45:3)? Why does Yosef ask if “my father” is still alive—he should have asked if “our father” is still alive? Why does Yosef try to further alienate himself from his brothers after years of exclusion?
The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Yekutiel Halberstam, in his Shefa Chaim, answers this question in an essay whose implications may illuminate the answer to our question. Throughout Jewish history, Am Yisrael has experienced so many struggles and miseries. As a result of these struggles, many Jews unfortunately declined in their Emunah in Hashem and did things that were not proper in His eyes. Nevertheless, righteous Jews were always pained to see their fellow Jews struggle, regardless of whether or not those Jews were living in the ways of Hashem. For example, throughout the period of Nevi’im, many prophets cried over the suffering of Am Yisrael, even though the suffering was brought about due to Am Yisrael’s lack of compliance with the Torah.
When Yosef asks his brothers whether his father is alive, he already knew the answer, because his brothers had previously told him that they have an elderly father (44:20). In his Toledot Yitzchak, Rav Yitzchak Karo explains that Yosef’s question is a rhetorical one whose purpose is to subdue to the brothers’ fears. By asking if his father is still alive, he is telling his brothers that he would not kill them, because nobody would become a murderer while his father is alive.
There may be an additional reason as to why Yosef asks if his father is still alive. Perhaps, when Yosef is really asking whether his father’s values are alive within him. We are told, “Titein Emet LeYa’akov,” “give truth to Ya’akov” (Micah 7:20), which teaches us that truth was Ya’akov’s main character trait. Yosef finally comes to the realization that he had been tricking his brothers for too long and that he had been dishonest with them. Yosef therefore asks whether or not his father’s best quality, truth, is still instilled in him.
When Yosef hears about his brothers’ suffering, he could have rejoiced that his hateful brothers are getting what they deserve. The righteousness of Yosef HaTzaddik is that when he hears about the trying circumstances of his brothers, he realizes that he has to look inward to see why everything is going wrong and what he can do to restore it. Instead of blaming others, he takes the responsibility upon himself. When Yosef hears about the suffering of his brothers in Eretz Yisrael, he thinks about what he can do to improve himself, which will hopefully restore the situation in Eretz Yisrael. When Yosef finally comes to this realization, he cannot hold back his emotions and continue to lie any longer—“VeLo Yachol Yosef LeHitapeik,” “And Yosef could not restrain himself anymore” (45:1). Yosef realizes that even though his brothers are guilty of terrible things, he still has to connect with them and help them, because they are and always will be his brothers, no matter what they do. By improving himself in order to help his brothers, Yosef effectively becomes a part of the family. He is not alienating himself by asking about “his” father, but rather joining his brothers by acting in his father’s ways.
As we concluded our observance of Chanukah, we are rapidly approaching the fast of Asarah BeTeiveit. On Chanukah, the Jewish people celebrate as a whole for their communal victory over the Greeks. Similarly, on Asarah BeTeiveit, we should all grieve for the communal loss of the Beit HaMikdash. If we feel a sense of Achdut and Areivut, unity and responsibility, towards each other just like Yosef and his brothers, then we will not only become closer to each other, but also to Hashem.