“Yosef Phone Home” by Solo Shulman


In a story that is filled with as much drama as modern day soap operas, Yosef and his brothers this week finally resolve their ongoing conflict. We have had two consecutive Parashiyot relate the Yosef story with twist and turns, slavery and redemption. Like a basketball game that ends after triple overtime, this week we have the dramatic conclusion with Yosef revealing himself to his brothers and, eventually, Ya’akov reuniting with Yosef in Egypt.

The oft-asked question is, why now? What makes Yosef reveal his true identity at this time? While many answers are given, we will present some thoughts based on an article by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun titled “Why Did Yosef Not Send Word to his Father?” Let’s review the story and pay close attention to some Pesukim in detail.

First we are told that Yosef is “HaShalit Al HaAretz,” “the viceroy over the land” (BeReishit 42:6). Next, Yosef recognizes the brothers but they do not recognize him (42:8). Yosef remembers the dreams he related to them and he accuses his brothers of being spies (42:9). In turn, the brothers respond (42:10), “Lo Adoni,” “Not so, my lord.” They are twelve brothers, sons from one man in the land of Kena’an, and the young one is with his father and the other is no longer alive (42:13).

After this dialogue, Yosef arranges to give the brothers food, return their money, and keep Shim’on in jail. This is intrinsically paradoxical behavior; is Yosef trying to help his brothers or is he trying to hurt them?

The answer is, neither! Yosef is trying to gain insight into his own story. For 20 years he has been alone. He has been wondering to himself, “why has my father not come for me? Maybe I, Yosef, misread the signals. Or maybe my brothers prevailed in convincing my father to disown me. Why did my father send me to my brothers, leading to me being sold as a slave?”

Maybe initially Yosef is willing to accept his slavery as a temporary “punishment” and expects his father to come bring him home. But after 20 years, Yosef comes to some form of acceptance that his father has in fact abandoned him. Yosef believes his father does not love him and has forgotten about him.

In Parashat MiKeitz, though, Yosef sees his brothers and is revitalized. He plans to learn the truth and is plotting to have Binyamin come down to Egypt and tell him the truth of why Ya’akov seemingly abandoned his son.

 Yosef’s trickery is setting the stage to bring Binyamin down to Egypt. If Yosef is trying to simply fulfill the dreams he would demand that Ya’akov come down as well. Yosef does not need to fulfill prophecy – he needs clarity. He is angry at Ya’akov for not coming down to Egypt earlier and now wants conflict resolution.

The brothers then return to Ya’akov and they explain all that transpired. They explain that next time they go to Egypt, Binyamin must go with them. At first, Ya’akov is resistant; however, the famine grows heavy and Ya’akov needs food. He needs the brothers to travel and get food, but they will not go unless Binyamin comes with us. Ya’akov at first remains adamant: “Lo Yeireid Beni Imachem Ki Achiv Meit,” “My son is not going with them because his brother is dead” (42:38). The story continues. The food becomes really scarce, and Ya’akov concedes to send Binyamin, with Yehudah’s assurance that he will return Benyamin safely.

When the brothers return to Mitzrayim, the Torah informs us (43:16), “VaYar Yosef Itam Et Binyamin,” “and Yosef saw Binyamin with them.” Yosef’s next goal, then, is to get Binyamin alone. He provides food for the brothers, arranges the money, and then cleverly has his goblet inserted into Binyamin’s possessions – strictly so he can jail Binyamin. He is not planning for Teshuva on the part of the brothers, or setting up a repetition of his exact same situation, with the child of Rachel being jailed; not at all . Yosef is thinking, “I have to get Binyamin alone and ask what happened to Dad? Did he disown me? Is our father, Ya’akov, yet alive? Did he not want to send a mission to find his favorite son? What is going on? Are you now the favorite? Fill me in, my brother!”

We now transition to Parashat VaYigash, to Yehudah’s speech to Yosef and to Yosef’s subsequent reaction. In his plea, Yehudah describes Binyamin’s situation as, “VeAchiv Meit,” “his brother is dead” (44:20). He also quotes Ya’akov, saying, “VaYeitzei HaEchad MeiIti VaOmar Ach Tarof Toraf VeLo Re’itiv Ad Heinah,” “One went out from me, and I said, ‘he is surely torn to pieces,’ and I have not seen him since” (44:28).

As soon as Yehudah finishes speaking, Yosef has an interesting reaction. “VeLo Yachol Yosef LeHit’apeik” (45:1), he could not hold himself back, and he revealed his identity to his brothers. Why does he do this specifically now? It is as this point, hearing Yehudah’s plea, that Yosef has an epiphany. We, reading the story as it developed, knew immediately of the brothers' wicked plot to trick their father and make him believe that Yosef was dead.  However, that never occurred to Yosef. Yosef all along believed that Ya’akov intentionally didn’t look for him, inquire about him. But, now that he hears from Yehudah that Ya’akov thinks Yosef to be dead, now everything makes sense to him. Yosef realizes that his father does love him, and he still is Ya’akov’s favorite son. He understands that Ya’akov never sent anyone to look for him not due to a lack of love, but because he thought Yosef was dead. To Yosef, everything now makes sense.

Why could Yosef “not control himself?” It is because Yosef realized that for 20 years he had read the situation incorrectly. He thought that his father was not coming to look for him, that his father disowned him and did not love him. Therefore, Yosef never contacted his home.

How often are we sure that we are analyzing the situation correctly. We derive conclusions based on good, solid thinking, and we maintain our convictions. But, in reality, we can all make errors in judgment.  Sometimes, we need to take a step back and reevaluate a situation. There may be an angle or two that we had not thought of, and because of a minor miscalculation, we made a major error. Sometimes, a student might think that a teacher is particularly harsh on another student, but he may not know the entire background. Sometimes, a basketball player will run out of the gym, astonishing the coach, who may not understand that the child has to take a Gemara test.

Yosef could not control himself, perhaps, because he realized that with all of his smarts, and all his power to dream, and all of his successes, and all of his analytical ability, even he could make a mistake. He realized that he may have lost so many years away from his father from his inability to see the other side of the picture. Yosef shortchanged himself by not being able to see the bigger picture.

This lesson should resonate with us all; we should not be locked into one small picture. We should keep our minds, hearts, and brains open to a multitude of options and give people the benefit of the doubt, lest we tragically lose out on precious moments in our lives.

Sensitivity to Others’ Pain by Rabbi Steven Finkelstein

A King of Men by Leo Metzger