By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Reading Between The Lines
It has become the classic scenario of "rags to riches", where "man plans and
The scene of Yoseph's first contact with brothers after 20 years of separation
exhibits his masterful manipulation of facts and events. However, a careful
reading of that encounter begs for further clarification.
1. Why did all ten brothers go to Egypt to buy food? As we see from
Yakov's concern for Binyamin's safety, travel in those days was dangerous. Why
hadn't Yakov sent a few of them with an entourage of servants and camels and
kept the core of the family safe and secure?
2. Why did potential buyers meet with the Viceroy, the second most
powerful man in Egypt? There must have been lesser bureocrats appointed to
handle such transactions?
3: On what logical basis did Yoseph contrive his accusation against his
brothers that they were spies?
4. The brothers responded to Yoseph's accusations in two parts. First,
they said that they were all sons of one father. Secondly, after Yoseph
repeated his accusation they related the additional facts that they used to be
12 brothers, but "one is no longer with us and the youngest is with his father
in Canaan." Why did the brothers feel the need to share their family history
with this apparent stranger?
The story of Yoseph and his brothers took place against a backdrop of
world events and history. To understand their story we must broaden the scope
of our discussion to include some of those events.
The hunger which Yoseph had prophesized extended way beyond the boarders
of Egypt. We are told that the entire Middle East, northern Africa, and
possibly beyond, were afflicted by the devastating famine. The only country
with food reserves was Egypt. Not only did Egypt have enough for her own
citizens but Yoseph's gifted administration had guaranteed them the envious
economic position of having enough 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 there was a real
possibility of attack and invasion from neighboring countries. Therefore,
Yoseph set up an elaborate security system to protect the sovereignty of
The first lines of defense were the gates of the city. The Medresh says
that the city had ten entrances, and at each gateway Yoseph appointed guards
trained to spot potential danger. Any concerns or suspicions were to be
immediately report to him. Additionally, Yoseph expected that the famine would
force his brothers to come to Egypt. He had instructed his security force to
be on special alert for men dressed like his brothers. (Keep in mind that
throughout the history of the Jews in Egypt, they did not change their names,
language, or mode of dress.)
Rashi 43:3 & 13 explains that the brothers had another agenda in traveling
to Egypt. The brothers regretted having sold Yoseph into slavery and were
determined to find him, redeem him, and bring him back to Yakov. Considering
that Egypt had become the marketplace for the world there was a possibility of
Yoseph being in Egypt. Therefore, it was necessary for all the brothers to go
to Egypt so they could properly search for him. No one else, including
servants, knew what the brothers had done, and therefore, no one else could be
entrusted to find Yoseph!
Rashi (42:13) also explains that in his attempt to find Yoseph each
brother entered the city from a different gate. We can assume that for reasons
of safety, the market place was at the center of the city and that all main
thoroughfares led to the marketplace. The brothers were all similarly dressed
and were spotted by Yoseph's guards stationed at the city's entrances. The
information was dispatched to Yoseph and each brother was placed under
surveillance and followed as they made their way through the city.
The brothers, because they were looking for Yoseph, did not make their way
directly to the center market. Instead, they wandered through the city
exploring side streets and alleys, markets, stores, inns, and theaters. The
security guards reported the brother's suspicious behavior directly to Yoseph.
Under normal circumstances, foreign buyers would not have met with the
viceroy of Egypt, however, given the suspicious behavior of the brothers,
Yoseph took charge of the situation.
Upon meeting his brothers, Yoseph spoke with them, "harshly." He neglected
established protocol and immediately asked them, "Who are you and from where
do you come?"
The brothers, unsuspecting and innocent, answered honestly. "We are buyers
The next part of the conversation was far more involved 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 had they divided the group in such a suspicious manner? Clearly,
their behavior revealed that they were spies who had come to gather
information on the city's strengths and fortifications in preparation for
invading Egypt and stealing her wealth!
The brothers responded to Yoseph's accusation and said, "No! We are only
buyers. We do not 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 did not come to spy!
Yoseph again accused them of being spies because their story did not
explain why they had each entered from a different entrance, or why they had
wandered the city's streets. Therefore, the brothers were forced to explain to
Yoseph their 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 an attempt at finding our long
lost brother, not to spy on 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 supplies, 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 will not believe you until you bring your
youngest brother to Egypt as proof of your story."
As with many other stories in the Chumash, the story of Yoseph's
manipulation of his brothers has many levels of meaning and intent. 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
Bnai Yisroel from further harm. The Parsha only reveals the bare bone facts of
these events with the rest of the story relegated to Talmud and Medresh.
Yoseph's story 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 manipulations, G-d was busy designing 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.