Our Parsha, Parshat Miketz, continues the saga of the struggle between Yaacov’s sons for dominance within the family structure. In last week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayetze, this struggle led to Yosef’s sale, at the hands of his brothers, into slavery in Egypt. In this week’s Parsha the pendulum swings back, and now it is the brothers who find themselves at Yosef’s mercy. (The fact that they do not realize that it is Yosef whom they are now confronting in no way takes away from the confrontation itself). It will only be over the course of the two subsequent parshiot, VaYigash and Vayechei, that this struggle will be decided, and that equilibrium between the brothers and Yosef will be achieved.
On the face of it, is difficult to understand how what is seemingly petty family politics could so dominate the relationships within Yaakov’s family. While on the one hand the actions of the brothers can be understood, if not justified or condoned, in light of the behavior of Yosef toward them, it is more difficult to understand the behavior of Yosef. Can we accept that Yosef’s behavior toward his brothers is motivated by mere spitefulness, a desire to “get back” at his brothers for their having sold him into Egyptian servitude? And even if we were to allow that such emotions were in fact at play here, how could Yosef have allowed his father to suffer for these past twenty two years, without even attempting to contact the man who so loved him and to whom Yosef himself was so attached? This question becomes even more perplexing when we consider the appellation, HaTzadik, that Chazal added to the very mention of Yosef’s name. How could someone who was such a Tzadik have behaved in what appears to be such a callous and unthinking manner?
It is interesting that the Ramban, who raises this question (42:9) is in fact bothered more by the second question than the first. With the words “v’af im haya retzono l’zaer et achiv ketza,, aich lo yachmol al seivat aviv”, “and even if he wished to cause a small measure of anguish to his brothers, how could he fail to have mercy on his father’s old age”, the Ramban seems to accept that after everything Yosef had endured as a result of his brothers shabby treatment of him, to cause them anguish in return was not beyond imagination. The greater problem is the pain that was consequently caused to his father. This, of course raises the interesting question as to whether even a Tzadik can be expected to fully divorce himself from natural human emotions.
The answer that the Ramban offers is a famous one. Had Yosef revealed himself to his brothers at this point, his dreams would have gone unfulfilled. Only by choosing the path of keeping his identity secret on the one hand, and forcing the arrival of Yaakov and Binyamin in Mitzrayim on the other, could Yosef ensure that his dreams would be fulfilled. (Here, the Ramban disagrees with Rashi as to whether or not the first dream was fulfilled when the brothers stood before him the first time. While Rashi believes that it was, the Ramban maintains that the fact that only ten brothers, and not eleven, now stood before him is indicative that even the first dream remained unfulfilled at this time. One assumes that Rashi is relying on the dictum which he quotes when explaining Yosef’s second dream that “ain chalom b’lo devarim betailim”, there is no dream which is one hundred percent accurate.)
It remains unclear from the Ramban why it was so critical that the dreams be fulfilled, and especially in a precise fashion. The Netziv suggests a partial explanation, saying that Yosef’s dreams were in fact a form of nevua. This meant that Yosef had a responsibility to do everything in his power to ensure that the nevua would be fulfilled. This approach does not, however, explain why the Ramban insisted on precision in the fulfillment of the nevua. The Netziv himself sides with Rashi and says that the first dream was fulfilled when the ten brothers came before Yosef at this time.
The Ralbag tries to square the circle by claiming that on the one hand Yosef was specifically avoiding “gratuitously” hurting his brothers. Nonetheless, he was forced into inflicting the minimum possible anguish in order to ensure that Binyamin was not endangered by the same hatred which had led them to nearly kill Yosef himself. This was accomplished by first accusing the brothers of being spies in order to ascertain if Binyamin was even alive or not. Yosef then imprisons Shimon as a way of having Binyamin brought before Yosef in order to test their love for Binyamin, and if they failed the test, to be in a position to possibly save Binyamin from their hatred.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch also asks our question, and deliberately moves in a totally different direction as the Ramban and Netziv, going as far as to reject the idea that Yosef had a responsibility to see his nevua fulfilled. That, says Rav Hirsch, was G-d’s responsibility, not Yosef’s. Instead, says Rav Hirsch, Yosef had a different concern on his mind, namely how to repair the fracture in the family. There are two issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, could Yosef believe that his brothers would place the welfare of Binyamin and Yaakov ahead of their own, a test that they had miserably failed in Yosef’s own case? Secondly, could the brothers be convinced that Yosef’s destiny as king and leader was not one that not only did not threaten them, but was in fact for their own good? From this vantage point, we can understand both Yosef’s failure to contact Yaakov and his treatment of his brothers. In order for Yaakov’s family to move forward as a true family, all the old questions had to be confronted and addressed. For Yosef to merely identify himself and act as the influential family member in high places would have reinforced the existing suspicions and created a relationship where the brothers were family in name only. Only by having the brothers demonstrate fealty to Yaakov and Binyamin, could Yosefs doubts be erased. And only by having a chance to demonstrate to his brothers that in his role as leader that he willfully avoided harming them, and instead was their benefactor, could Yosef prove to his brothers that their suspicions about him were baseless.
Nechama Leibowitz found the appellation of Yosef HaTzadik to be difficult. Surely the description of Yosef in Parshat VaYeshev does not support such a statement of Yosef’s character! Nechama explained that in fact the progression we see in Yosef’s personality from the beginning of parshat VaYeshev through Parshat VaYigash is what earns him that title. From a selfish, self-centered adolescent, to a maturing but still self-centered young adult in Potifar’s home, to a man who is fully cognizant of his place vis a vis G-d in Pharaoh’s prison, to the ruler who rules not for his own self aggrandizement but for the sake of others in Parshat VaYigash, Yosef becomes HaTzadik. If this is correct, then Yosef’s “showdown” with his brothers is an important step along the way. Be it from the perspective of the Ramban, the Ralbag or Rav Hirsch, Yosef was not a Tzadik despite the way he confronted his brothers, but became a Tzadik through the way he confronted them.
Shabbat Shalom and Zot Channuka Samaech