By Rabbi Aron Tendler
In this week's Parsha, the encounters between Yoseph and his brothers are the
masterful and imaginative creations of Yoseph. Many of the commentaries
explain that Yoseph had two motives for manipulating his brothers.
1. He was testing his brothers to see if they had repented for having sold
him into slavery. The Rambam - Maimonidies in the laws of Teshuva -
Repentance explains that true repentance is when a person experiences the
same circumstances that resulted in past sinning, but now exhibits proper
behavior and self-control. In order to test his brother's repentance Yoseph
had to create a set of circumstances that would potentially pit brother
against brother. If the brothers would support and defend each other
refusing to further compromise the integrity of Yakov's family, their Teshuva
and sincerity would have been proven.
2. Yoseph needed to make sure that his two dreams would be fulfilled. In his
first dream all eleven brothers had bowed down to him. Upon seeing his
brothers for the first time only ten of them were there to bow to him.
Therefore, he had to manipulate the events so that Binyamin was brought down
to Mitzrayim - Egypt without the brothers yet knowing that he was Yoseph.
In analyzing the conversation between Yoseph and the brothers following their
initial confrontation, a number of questions need to be answered.
In verse 42:16 Yoseph demanded that one of the brothers be sent back to
Canaan to fetch Binyamin while the remaining brothers be kept hostage. In
the next verse all the brothers were imprisoned for three days. Verse 42:18
records that Yoseph seemingly changed his mind during those three days and
required that only one brother remain hostage while the others return to
1. What happened to Yoseph's first demand of sending back only one of the
2. Why did Yoseph imprison them for three days?
3. In Verse 42:16 Yoseph swears that their honesty would be tested "by the
life of Pharoah." In Verse 42:18 Yoseph professes a "fear of G-d" as the
reason for his change of heart and concern for their families welfare. Whose
G-d was he referring to? If he was referring to their G-d, how did the
viceroy of Egypt know about the obscure beliefs of a small Canaanite family?
Why didn't Yoseph reference Pharoah's name after the three days of prison?
4. Following their three days of imprisonment the Brothers associated their
troubles with their actions against Yoseph. Why did this occur to them after
they were released rather than during their imprisonment? Why in Verse 42:22
does Reuven seem to play the petty part of "I told you so?"
5. Verses 42:23-24 relate that Yoseph overheard their conversation and
couldn't stop himself from crying. Why did Yoseph cry at that moment?
As explained by the commentaries, Yoseph was determined to facilitate and
test his brother's repentance. Additionally, Yoseph knew that he and his
brothers were setting the stage for the growth and development of their
family into the Jewish nation in preparation for receiving the Torah.
(Axiomatic to our belief in the divinity of the Torah is the fact that it was
given to a nation of three million, rather than to a single person or small
group of people.) Furthermore, Yoseph and the Brothers knew that honesty,
especially in the arena of justice, was essential for the Jews to accomplish
their mission as teachers and role-models for the rest of the world. If we
are perceived as honest and truthful the other nations will want to learn
from the example of our life-style. If we are perceived as unfair and
dishonest all other potential truths and lessons will be discounted by the
world as hypocritical and false.
If we contrast verse 42:16 with the end of verse 42:20, we notice at the end
of Verse 20 the words, "And they did so." The reason why Yoseph imprisoned
all the brothers for three days was because they first refused Yoseph's
demand that one of the brothers return to fetch Binyamin while the remaining
nine stay in prison. However, after being in prison for three days the
brothers accepted Yoseph's second demand of one brother staying behind in
Egypt while the rest went to fetch Binyamin.
Yoseph's first demand was designed to test the unity of the brothers.
Initially, when they had sold him into slavery, the brothers had justified
their decision on the basis of family unity. They had perceived his dreams
as a threat to their participation in the formation of the Jewish people.
Their understanding was that Yoseph saw himself as the sole successor to the
spiritual legacy of Avraham, and the rest of them as among the "other
nations." That is why in the first dream all the brothers bowed down to
Yoseph. Yoseph had postured himself as the "kingdom of priests and a holy
nation," and the rest of them as accepting of his dominant spiritual role.
The second dream further confirmed their fears because Yakov and Leah, the
sun and the moon, were bowing to Yoseph. They understood the dream as proof
of Yoseph's desire to be the last of the Forefathers. The last of the
Fathers had to be the "chosen one" because all the preceding generations
culminated in his selection. The other eleven brothers would then be
included among the "multitude of nations" prophesized to descend from Avraham
The fact that Yakov considered Yoseph as special was obvious to them and
further contributed to their fears of being left out of the Jewish equation.
It was their desire to be part of the "kingdom of priests" that motivated
their plan to remove Yoseph as a threat to their spiritual destiny. Just as
Yakov had removed Eisav so too did they remove Yoseph.
If the Brothers had not done Teshuva for selling Yoseph, Yoseph's first
demand should have been agreeable to them. By refusing his first demand, the
Brothers put all of them, except for Binyamin, in danger of being killed. If
that would have happened, Binyamin, the sole remaining son of Yakov and
Rachel, would have, by default, became the fourth of the Fore-Fathers. In
fact, Binyamin was the only brother to have already fathered 10 sons, far,
more than any of the other brothers. Yet, the Brothers refused Yoseph's deal
and showed that they had fully accepted their shared destiny as the Bnai
Yisroel, the children of Yakov. Regardless of what might happen to them
personally, they trusted Binyamin to care for their surviving sons and
protect the fledgling nation.
We know that in order for the Jews to receive the Torah they had to attain a
level of national unity, "like a single person with one heart." The three
days of imprisonment were a foreshadowing of the three days of preparation
(Shmos, 19:11) that the Bnai Yisroel would have to undergo before receiving
the Torah. It was proof to Yoseph that his brothers had become a single
entity with a shared destiny.
Ever since the days of Avraham, honesty and integrity, especially in regards
to justice, had been the hallmark of the Jew. The notion of imprisoning all
the brothers was fundamentally unjust and non-Jew like. It is what Yoseph
refers to as "by the life of Pharaoh." If Yoseph had suspected the Brothers
of being spies, sending back one of them to Canaan was as foolish as sending
back all of them. Either way, the information regarding Egypt's defenses and
weaknesses would have been delivered to the enemy.
If the Brothers were telling the truth, sending back just one of them would
have consigned the family in Canaan to greater hardship or death due to the
hunger. One man could not possibly handle the dangerous trip across the
desert leading a caravan of camels loaded with provisions. If they were
telling the truth then keeping one as hostage was just as effective as
keeping nine, while providing sufficient manpower to bring food back to the
family. That is what Yoseph called, "fear of G-d."
The contrast between the two demands is reminiscent of Avraham's conversation
with Avimemlech. When Avimemlech questioned Avraham's motives for lying
about his relationship with Sarah, Avraham answered, "because there is no
fear of G-d in this place". There might have been a fear of Avimelech's
arbitrary, and therefore, flawed justice; abut there was no fear of G-d or an
understanding of true justice. Therefore Avraham could not trust Avimelech
or the Plishtim and had to take measures to protest himself and Sarah. When
Yoseph used the term, "It is G-d that I fear," he revealed to the brothers
that Avraham's influences had even reached Egypt, and that he was truly a man
Upon hearing Yoseph's judicial reasoning the Brothers themselves were forced
to reconsider their position. G-d would not have allowed for them to be
compromised by a man of justice and truth unless they were deserving of
retribution. Considering that a secondary reason for their going to Egypt
was to find Yoseph, their thoughts immediately turned to that incident.
Their difficulties with the Viceroy made it obvious that their desire to find
Yoseph wasn't proof enough of their repentance; something was still missing
from their Teshuva.
Reuven, who had already exhibited a unique sensitivity to Yoseph the "Yeled"
(boy) at the time of his sale, (37:30 & 42:22) understood what was missing
from their Teshuva. True that the brothers now regretted their decision to
sell Yoseph; however, they had never exhibited any regret for the pain they
had caused the young boy Yoseph. Therefore, Reuven pointed out to them that
the reason for their tribulations was due to "sinning against the boy!" As
the Rambam says, "Their insensitivity toward Yoseph was a far greater sin
than the actual sale!"
Yoseph, upon hearing Reuven's words, had to cry. For 20 years, Yoseph had
assumed that it was Reuven that had masterminded his sale into slavery.
Reuven, as the first born, had the most to gain! With Yoseph out of the way
he would be assured the rights of the first-born. Remember, it was Reuven who
had already exhibited a personal concern for position within the family in
the incident of switching Yakov's bed to the tent of his mother Leah.
However, when Yoseph heard that it was Reuven who had tried to protect him,
Yoseph was overwhelmed with emotion and he had to cry.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.