Yoseph and his Brothers (II)
Then Yoseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and
he cried out, "Have everyone leave my presence!" So there was no one with
Yoseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly
that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it. Yoseph
said to his brothers, "I am Yoseph! Is my father still living?" But his
brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his
presence. (B'resheet 45:3)
Subsequent to Yehudah's heartfelt plea on behalf of his younger brother (and
ward) Binyamin (44:18-34), Yoseph is unable to control himself. Shooing out
the bystanders in his court, Yoseph then reveals himself to his brothers.
There are three questions I would like to pose; two of which are local to
this "outburst" of Yoseph, the third which addresses the entire
Yoseph-brothers interaction in Egypt until now:
1) What caused Yoseph to lose control over his emotions?
2) It is clear from here that Yoseph intended to control himself and not
reveal his identity - at least at this point - to his brothers. What was his
plan that was disrupted by this loss of control?
3) The general question: What was Yoseph's intent in the whole charade
with his brothers? Why didn't he immediately greet them when they first came
down to Egypt? Another slice of this question is, as Ramban asks:
How is it that Yoseph, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a
high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian
official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he
was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days' travel from Hevron, and
respect for his father would have justified even a year's journey! (It
would) have been a grave sin to torment his father by leaving him in
mourning and bereavement for himself and for Shim'on; even if he wanted to
hurt his brothers a little, how could he not feel pity for his aged father
(Ramban to B'resheet 42:9)?"
In other words, besides his treatment of the brothers in his court, how
did Yoseph allow his father to mourn for so many years when he could have
easily informed him of his whereabouts and safety?
Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and Rav Yaakov Medan, both of Yeshivat Har Etzion,
addressed this issue in the inaugural issue of the prestigious Tanakh
journal Megadim, put out by the Teacher's College of the Yeshivah (now
Michlelet Herzog). A synopsis of their approaches is available on our
courtesy of Yeshivat Har Etzion.
RAV BIN-NUN'S APPROACH
There are two basic facts that must be stressed to understand Yoseph's
behavior. First of all, the family tradition until this point (in Avraham
and Yitzchak's families) was to pass the mantle of leadership on to one son
and to send the other(s) away. Second, we have to remember that even though
we, the readers, are aware of everyone's part in the story - the "players"
only know what is revealed to them.
Based on this, Rav Bin-Nun suggests that Yoseph had no idea that his father
was mourning his loss. If anything, the events which led up to his sale
convinced him that father had been convinced by the sons of Leah to reject
Yoseph and select them (or one of them). Yoseph knew nothing of the bloody
coat, used to convince Ya'akov that he was dead. As far as he was concerned,
Ya'akov's lack of interest in his welfare (evidenced by Ya'akov's not
looking for him after his "disappearance" in Dotan) proved this point -
Ya'akov had rejected him and accepted the arguments of his brothers.
When the brothers came down to Egypt, Yoseph found one opportunity to really
find out what had happened back at home - if only he could speak with
Binyamin, his full brother! Therefore, Yoseph acted as he did - in order to
get Binyamin down to Egypt and then to get him alone (as his slave - at the
end of Miketz) in order to find out what had really transpired back in Hevron.
This was, according to Rav Bin-Nun, Yoseph's original plan. The plan was
disrupted because of Yehudah's impassioned plea for Binyamin's freedom.
Suddenly Yoseph was faced with new information which turned his entire
perspective around - father had thought him dead and that's why he had never
come looking for him! (This synopsis doesn't even come close to doing Rabbi
Bin-Nun's treatment justice...)
WHAT CAUSED YOSEPH TO LOSE CONTROL?
As mentioned above, one explanation for Yoseph's outburst is the new
information - that instead of having been rejected by father, his father had
been mourning for him.
There are, however, several other ways to understand his sudden reaction.
(Take into account that there are good reasons to reject Rabbi Bin-Nun's
explanation - see Rav Medan's rejoinder in the Megadim article.) I would
like to suggest five of them.
A: AN ACCUMULATION OF COMPASSION
In two earlier passages (42:24 & 43:30-31), we read about Yoseph's emotions
and how he had to turn away from his brothers in order to regain his
composure. Significantly, in the second passage, we read that *vaYit'apak* -
("he restrained himself"); which is the same word used in our passage -
*v'lo Yakhol Yoseph l'Hit'apek* -("he could no longer restrain himself"). We
can understand from this use of the unique word *hit'apek* that the Torah is
trying to associate his earlier restraint with the present lack thereof. In
other words, the emotional accumulation, climaxed with Yehudah's plea,
caused Yoseph to finally break down. This is apparently Rashbam's
understanding of the verse.
B: A MULTITUDE OF INTERCESSORS
In our verse (45:1), Yoseph is unable to "control himself before all his
attendants" - what is the connection between those who were attending to
Yoseph and his inability to keep his emotions in check?
S'forno explains that he was not able to answer all of their questions and
request with this heavy load on his heart - which is why he sent them out.
Ramban, however, advances a much bolder explanation. He claims that all of
the attendants and courtiers, upon hearing Yehudah's plea - which, by the
way, Yoseph would have been foolish to reject, considering Yehudah's
"plusses" over Binyamin (age, experience, power) - chimed in along with the
brothers. Yoseph was unable to control himself in the face of this barrage
of pleading, from all around, to have compassion on the young Binyamin and
his hoary father.
Both answers A & B understand Yoseph's outburst as the result of "too much"
- either an overload of emotions, accumulating from the brothers' earlier
visits - or "too many" people pleading for Binyamin's freedom.
C: YEHUDAH'S T'SHUVAH IS COMPLETE
As Rabbi Medan points out in his article, Yoseph was chiefly concerned with
ascertaining whether the brothers had done T'shuvah (repentance) from their
heinous act of selling him into slavery. [Parenthetically, it is fairly
clear from the text that the brothers never sold him into slavery and
thought that Yoseph had died. Yoseph, however, had every reason to think
that they had sold him, since he heard Yehudah suggest this course of action
and the next thing he knew, Midianites were pulling him out of the pit and
selling him to Yishma'elites, who took him as a slave to Egypt.] As we know
from the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1), the most perfect form of T'shuvah is
a reversal of character as evidenced by acting differently in the same
situation. Whereas Yehudah had been willing to sell Yoseph into slavery,
Yehudah is now the one who steps forward to take responsibility - and to
offer himself as the slave in Binyamin's place. This total turnaround on the
part of the brothers' leader and spokesman signaled to Yoseph that their
T'shuvah was complete and that he could now reveal himself to them.
D: ANOTHER EVOLUTION WITHIN YEHUDAH'S WORDS
Throughout the tumultuous life of the two wives, Rachel and Leah, we learn
much (by reading between the lines via the Midrash and Rishonim) about the
role of their children and their staunch defense of the honor which should
be accorded each of their mothers. The Rabbis even explain Re'uven's sin
with Bilhah in light of his concern for his mother's honor after the death
of Rachel. (BT Shabbat 55b). There is every indication that the enmity felt
between Yoseph and his brothers was the direct result of their vying for
power - and promoting the Leah or Rachel position in the family.
In reporting the debate between the father and brothers about bringing
Binyamin down to Egypt, Yehudah quotes Ya'akov as follows: "You know that my
wife bore me two sons..." (44:27) This "wife" is none other than Rachel. For
Yehudah to be able to put aside his own feelings about his mother and her
sister and to accurately report father's words indicated an emotional
evolution. Yehudah (and, by extension, the other brothers) was able to
accept Ya'akov's favoritism of Rachel and Yoseph. This turnabout not only
emotionally tugged at Yoseph (along with the poignant reminder of his own
mother's death) - it also signaled to Yoseph that it was "safe" to reveal
himself and that his position in the family was safe.
E: COMPASSION FOR YA'AKOV
When Yoseph finally reveals himself to his brothers (45:3), he makes a
strange statement: "I am Yoseph! Is my father still living?" The recurring
theme of Yehudah's plea of several moments earlier was father's inevitable
heartbreak if Binyamin isn't brought safely back - so obviously the father
is still alive! Why did Yoseph ask this question?
S'forno interprets Yoseph's question as rhetorical - "How could my father
still be alive after all of these troubles?". The first thing on Yoseph's
mind at this emotionally charged moment was his father's welfare. Note the
theme of Yehudah's plea:
Then your servant my father said to us, 'You know that my wife bore me two
sons; one left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces; and I have
never seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm comes to
him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol.' Now therefore,
when I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us, then, as
his life is bound up in the boy's life, when he sees that the boy is not
with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of
your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became
surety for the boy to my father, saying, 'If I do not bring him back to
you, then I will bear the blame in the sight of my father all my life.' Now
therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of
the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back
to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that
would come upon my father." (44:27-34)
The image of Ya'akov's heartbreak and his suffering finally pushed Yoseph's
emotional equilibrium far enough to cause him to lose control.
However we understand the cause - or causes - of Yoseph's outburst, one
thing is clear. Yoseph felt torn between the "charade" which he found
necessary to play out and his deep and abiding love for his family.
Something in Yehudah's words allowed him to resolve this conflict, leading
to the emotional rapprochement with his brothers and, ultimately, to a
tearful reunification with his beloved father.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.