By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Reading Between The Lines
The scene of Yoseph's first contact with his brothers after twenty years of
separation exhibits Yoseph's masterful manipulation of facts and events.
However, a careful reading of that encounter, begs further clarification.
1. Why did all ten brothers go to Egypt to buy food? As we see from Yakov's
concern for Binyamin, travel was dangerous. Why didn't Yakov send just a
few of them with an entourage of servants and camels and keep the core of
the family in relative safety?
2. Why were potential buyers meeting with the second most important man in
Egypt? Weren't there lesser bureaucrats available to handle such interactions?
3. What was Yoseph's logical basis for accusing his brothers of being spies?
4. The brothers responded to Yoseph's accusation in two parts. First they
said that they were all the sons of one father. Secondly, after Yoseph
repeated his accusation, they related to Yoseph the additional facts that
they used to be 12 brothers, but "one is no longer with them, and the
youngest is with his father in Canaan." Why were they sharing their family
history with a complete stranger?
The story of Yoseph and his brothers took place against the backdrop of
world events and history. To understand their story we need to broaden our
scope to include some of those events.
The hunger which Yoseph had predicted extended way beyond the boarders of
Mitzrayim. We are told that the entire Middle East, Northern Africa, and
possibly beyond, were subject to the devastating famine. The only country
with sufficient food reserves was Mitzrayim. Not only did they have enough
for their own citizens, but Yoseph's gifted administration had guaranteed
them the envious economic position of being able to supply food for the
rest of the world. Therefore, buyers from around the world traveled to
Egypt to purchase food.
Along with this unparalleled economic opportunity came increased concerns
for Egypt's safety. Hungry men are desperate men, and the possibility of
invasion and attack from a neighboring country was much more feasible than
ever before. Therefore, Yoseph had set up an elaborate security system to
oversee the safety of Mitzrayim.
The first line of defense was the gates of the city. The Medresh says that
the city had ten entrances. At each entrance, Yoseph set up guards who were
trained to spot potential dangers and concerns and immediately report them
to him. Additionally, Yoseph suspected that the famine would force his
brothers to come to Mitzrayim and had instructed his security forces to be
on special alert for men dressed like his brothers. (Remember, throughout
the history of Mitzrayim the Bnai Yisroel [Jews] did not change their
names, their language, and their mode of dress.)
Rashi (43:3 & 13) explains that the brothers had another agenda in
traveling to Mitzrayim. The brothers regretted having sold Yoseph into
slavery and were determined to find him and redeem him. Being that
Mitzrayim had become the market place for the world they figured that there
was the possibility of Yoseph being there, and they were prepared to look
for him. Therefore, it was necessary for all the brothers who had been part
of the "sale of Yoseph" to go to Mitzrayim so that they could properly
search for him. No one else, including servants, knew what they had done,
and therefore, no one else could be entrusted to find him!
Rashi (43:13) also explains that in their attempt to find Yoseph each
brother entered the city from a different gate. We can assume that the
market place was at the center of the city. and that all main thoroughfares
led to the city's market and center.
The brothers were all dressed similarly and were spotted by Yoseph's
security forces stationed at the cities ten entrances. The brothers were
identified and the information was dispatched to Yoseph. Additionally,
each brother was placed under immediate surveillance and followed as they
made their way through the city.
Because the brothers were also looking for Yoseph, they didn't make their
way directly to the center market. Instead, they wandered through the city
inspecting side streets and alleys, stores and inns, side markets and
theaters. The security forces reported their curious and suspicious
behavior directly to Yoseph.
Under normal conditions, foreign buyers would not meet with the second most
important man in Mitzrayim, however, given the suspicious behavior of this
particular group of foreigners, Yoseph took charge.
Upon meeting his brothers, Yoseph spoke with them harshly. He neglected
the established protocols and immediately asked them, "Who are you and from
where do you come?" The brothers responded honestly, "We are buyers from
Canaan." The next part of the conversation was far more extensive than
recorded in the text of the Parsha. Yoseph confronted them with the
suspicious fact that they had entered the city from ten different
entrances. If they were mere buyers, why did they divide their group in
such a suspicious manner. Clearly, their behavior indicated that they were
spies looking to gather information about the cities fortifications and
strengths in preparation for invading Egypt and stealing her wealth! The
brothers responded to Yoseph's accusation and said, "No! We are only
buyers. We don't even have an allegiance to a specific country. We are
merely a family, all the sons of the same father, trying to survive the
terrible famine. We didn't come to spy!"
Yoseph again accused them of being spies because their story didn't explain
why they had each entered from a different entrance, and why they had spent
time wandering the cities streets. The brothers were then forced to
explain to Yoseph that in fact they had come with a hidden agenda. "We
were twelve brothers, the sons of the same father. The youngest is back
home and the other was lost to us long ago. The reason we entered from
different directions and wandered the city was in an attempt to find our
lost brother, not to spy out the city!"
Yoseph then took their honest and heartfelt explanation and twisted it into
further proof of his accusation. "If you were spies I would expect you to
have a prepared explanation for your suspicious behavior. Most buyers come
to the city, proceed directly to the market, buy their provisions, and
return to their homes as quickly as possible. You have this moving,
personal, and unsubstantiated story of a lost brother and a younger
sibling. I won't believe you until you bring your youngest brother to
Mitzrayim to validate your story. Otherwise, my accusation stands!"
As with many other stories in the Chumash, the story of Yoseph's
manipulation of his brothers has many levels of intent and concern. Yoseph
wished to recreate for his brothers the circumstances that would provide
them with the opportunity to do complete Teshuva for having sold him into
slavery. The brothers were focused on finding Yoseph and protecting the
rest of the fledgling Bnai Yisroel. The Parsha only reveals to us the bare
bones facts of these events, while the "rest of the story" is relegated to
the Gemara and Medresh. It has become the classic scenario of "rags to
riches", where "man plans and G-d laughs." While Yoseph and his brothers
engaged each other within the limits of their own designs, Hashem was busy
setting the next stage of Jewish destiny.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.