5769 - #12



Commentators generally understand that Yosef’s plan, in his interaction with his brothers upon their initial venture to Egypt to secure supplies for the family, was to effect teshuva within the brothers for their previous treatment of him.1 The revelation by Yosef of who he really was,2 thus, was continuously understood by me to be a declaration of the success of this effort. The impassioned plea of Yehuda in Bereishit 44:18-34, somehow, indicated to Yosef that the brothers had done teshuva and so Yosef, no longer able to control himself as there was no further reason to control himself, declared who he was. Recently, though, someone shared with me another understanding of Yosef’s revelation, predicated on the belief that Yosef was actually not totally successful in his plan. The verse, according to this view, states, powerfully, that Yosef could not contain himself any more, specifically because there was still a rational reason for Yosef not to share his identity with his brothers – he had not fulfilled his objective in regard to the teshuva of his brothers. The mistrust that the brothers had towards Yosef, upon their father, Yaakov’s, death,3 is further presented as a support for this theory.    

            The Torah informs us that the brothers were concerned that, after Yaakov’s death, Yosef, perhaps still feeing hatred for them because of what they did to him, may retaliate against them for their previous actions. Rashi, Bereishit 45:16 explains that the brothers developed this perception based upon the change in Yosef’s behaviour towards them after their father’s death. While Yaakov was alive, the brothers dined at Yosef’s table and Yosef was friendly towards them. After Yaakov’s death, this, though, was not the case. The brothers, thus, were concerned that Yosef may still have been harbouring ill feelings towards them and that while Yosef restrained these feelings while Yaakov was still alive, in order not to pain his father, there was now no further reason for Yosef to restrain himself. In that the brothers felt that Yosef still harboured negative feelings towards them, it would seem that the brothers recognized a possibility that Yosef did not accept their teshuva. If this was true, it would be somewhat difficult to understand Yosef’s revelation before his brothers as a recognition of their teshuva. Indeed, not necessarily in the mistrust of Yosef that the brothers expressed after Yaakov’s death but rather, from the negative change in Yosef’s behaviour towards them, at this time, which prompted this mistrust, there would seem to be some indication that Yosef did not believe that they had done teshuva.

            Yosef’’s hurt because of the accusation of the brothers, through the presentation of a request from their father, Yaakov, that Yosef forgive them for their previous misdeeds, would seem, however, to challenge such a conclusion. Perhaps the brothers believed that Yosef had not forgiven them but this perception by the brothers does not show that Yosef indeed had not forgiven them. Maharal, Gur Aryeh, Bereishit 45:15 explains that Yosef maintained a distance from the brothers, after Yaakov’s death, in the best interests of the brothers. He felt that the Egyptians would attempt, if the brothers were perceived to be close to Yosef, to use the brothers, and this closeness to Yosef, to the detriment of the brothers. The fact that the brothers were concerned about how Yosef would respond to them does not even indicate that the brothers did not do teshuva. The only indication that we can derive from the brothers concern regarding how Yosef would now treat them is that the brothers did not perceive that their teshuva was accepted by Yosef. For this, though, Yosef still wept. Did the brothers perceive that Yosef, although recognizing that they did teshuva, would still not forgive them? Did the brothers perceive that Yosef could not see that they had done teshuva? Either way, it would seem, Yosef was hurt. Either way, it is somewhat problematic for Yosef to have been so startled by his brothers’ accusation if he did not believe that they had done teshuva. Yet, at the same time, it would seem to also be equally clear that the brothers did not expect Yosef to respond to their teshuva.

            Throughout the story of the re-encounter of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, our focus is on Yosef’s intent in his behaviour to his brothers and whether he was successful in his goal. Through investigating the actions of the brothers after Yaakov’s death, a new focus emerges. How did the brothers see Yosef? How did the brothers, as the objects of Yosef’s intent, understand Yosef’s behaviour towards them? What, furthermore, was their intent in their actions towards Yosef? If they would have thought that Yosef maintained the charade when they first came down to Egypt in order to lead them on a path of teshuva, they would have recognized that Yosef did have their best interests at heart. The fact that they mistrusted Yosef’s behaviour after Yaakov’s death would seem to indicate that they did not perceive this to be Yosef’s motivation or true motivation. What, then, did they believe? Given Yosef’s power in Egypt, this lack of knowledge as to the intent of Yosef must have been worrisome for the brothers. Their one assumption was that Yosef would not act in a manner that would disrespect Yaakov; otherwise, they feared the worse. They saw themselves as pawns in the hands of Yosef and, while they recognized that Yosef would not act in a manner that would disrespect Yaakov, they did not know, now, what to expect from their brother in power. Yet, if they truly did teshuva, wouldn’t they have recognized Yosef’s good intentions? Somehow, this was not part of the brothers’ teshuva.

            Yehuda’s plea to Yosef was very directed. His main argument was not that Binyamin did not really steal the cup but rather that Yaakov would be devastated if Binyamin did not return with them. Yosef had accomplished his goal for the brothers should have been equally concerned about Yaakov when they sold Yosef. The relationship between Yosef and the brothers itself was not on the agenda. They saw Yosef back in their father’s home, even if with all good intent, as presenting himself as having dominion over them. Nothing occurred in the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef that indicates that this perception had changed. Even at this juncture, they may have still believed that Yosef wished dominion over them, albeit even for righteous purposes. Their response to Yosef after seeing the anguish that he was in after their accusation of him was to state that they would be slaves to him, that they would accept his dominion for the good. It is then that Yosef makes his final point to them – there is only One who has dominion and that he, Yosef, is also just a pawn in those hands of God.           

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 or to ensure that the brothers had already done teshuva.

2 Bereishit 45:1-3.

3 Bereishit 50:15-16.

(c) Nishma, 2008


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