Unity at All Costs?
“Yosef recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. Then Yosef remembered the dreams he had dreamed about them, and he said to them: You are spies, you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” (Bereishit, 42:8-9)
Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains that Yosef was younger than his brothers. When he was sold, his brothers had beards but he did not; now, 22 years later, he has grown a beard. Therefore, quite simply, Yosef recognized his brothers, whilst they failed to recognize him.
But if Yosef recognizes them, why does he continue to conceal his identity? This question becomes all the more difficult when we see that not only does Yosef conceal his identity, he seems to concoct a detailed plan that denounces his brothers as spies; adds grief to his aging father; imprisons Shimon, and finally threatens his brothers with the prospect of Binyamin becoming a slave.
Is this just a planned vendetta for being exiled from the family for 22 years?
And we can further ask why Yosef, during the seven years of plenty, when he already held a position of significant power, did not even try to make contact with his father in Eretz Yisrael?
Let us glimpse at the rich, wise, and wonderful world of our commentators as they tackle these issues:
First, the Ramban:
“…The text states that when Yosef saw his brothers bowing down to him, he remembered his dreams and noted that one of them had not been properly fulfilled on this occasion, since he had understood from the first dream ‘when we were binding sheaves,’ (Ibid. 37:7) that all of his brothers had to bow down to him, the word ‘we’ alluding to all 11 of them. The second dream alluded to a further episode when the ‘sun, the moon, and 11 stars,’ (meaning his brothers together with his parents,) would subsequently bow down to him. Noticing that Binyamin was not present at this first meeting, he planned events in order to bring Binyamin to him, thereby in effect realizing the first dream, where all 11 of his siblings would bow down to him. Therefore, at this stage he refrained from revealing his identity to them… since had he done so his father would have come immediately upon hearing the news. Only once the first dream had been realized, did he reveal his identity in order to effect the realization of the second dream.
If we do not understand the actions of Yosef in this way, we would be forced to conclude that Yosef was guilty of a grave sin, inflicting pain on his father and allowing him to suffer an unnecessarily long bereavement for both him and for his incarcerated sibling, Shimon. Even if we could somehow justify the brothers’ suffering during these events, Yosef should at least have had pity on his father’s old age. But Yosef carried out everything in the appropriate manner in order to realize his dreams, knowing that they would really come true…” (Bereishit, 42:9)
In his comments to verse 9, Rashi clearly disagrees with the Ramban’s theory. As he understands the verse, Yosef’s dreams came true as soon as the brothers bowed down to him during their very first meeting. The verse simply explains that when Yosef saw the brothers prostrate before him, he remembered the dreams and now saw that they had been fulfilled. On the other hand, the Ramban sees this as the beginning of the process; as if to say that once Yosef recognized his brothers and remembered his dreams, he now saw fit to ensure that they would be realized to the very last detail.
Thus, the Ramban also explains why Yosef had refrained from trying to make contact with his family until now. The moment he heard Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef knew that there would be a famine and that his family would eventually come to him for food. He knew that that was the only way his dreams would be realized, and he therefore made no effort to contact home.
Despite the Ramban’s logic, we are left with some striking questions:
Were Yosef’s dreams to be taken so literally that he had to ensure that they would be fulfilled to the very last detail, despite the trauma and pain that would be incurred by all those involved?
And even if we were to suggest that the dreams, because they were Divine visions that foretold the future, had to be fulfilled in precise detail, is it Yosef’s responsibility to directly oversee their realization? Surely, if the Almighty arranged the initial meeting between Yosef and his siblings, He is also eminently capable of ‘organizing’ any subsequent encounters?
We are also left wondering why these dreams were so crucial that they had to come true? Besides the technical realization of his youthful dreams, what does Yosef gain by his brothers and his father bowing down to him? According to the Ramban, who excuses Yosef’s actions by explaining that he was simply ensuring that the dreams come true, we now need an explanation as to why it was so important for those dreams to come true. It seems that the realization of the dreams has become an end in itself!
The Kli Yakar, (Ibid. 42:7) adapting a theme in the Abarbanel, takes a very different approach. The reason that Yosef refrained from contacting his father had nothing to do with his dreams or even with his brothers. Yosef reasoned that his father was a prophet, and if the Almighty had not yet informed him of his son’s whereabouts then clearly he was not meant to know. Yosef understood that his father was being punished measure for measure, for the 22 years that he had refrained from seeing his own father Yitzchak whilst in exile in Lavan’s house, and thus he made no effort to contact his father until those 22 years were completed.
Regarding his treatment of his brothers, the Kli Yakar suggests that Yosef acted in order to atone for his brothers’ actions against him. Hence, every part of his plan was meant to atone, measure for measure, for an element of the wrongdoing that they had perpetrated against Yosef in the past.
For example, Yosef accused his brothers of being spies, in the same way that they had accused him of spying on them. They threw Yosef into a pit, and so Yosef had them incarcerated; specifically Shimon, who according to Rashi (Ibid. 42:24,) was personally responsible for throwing Yosef into the pit. And the stolen goblet incident, in which the brothers found themselves facing slavery in Egypt, was in turn a punishment for having sold Yosef as a slave all those years ago.
The Kli Yakar, naturally following Rashi’s lead, sees the dreams to be of little consequence when relating to Yosef and his siblings. He does not see Yosef being determined to realize his dreams at all costs; rather he sees Yosef as a brother who dearly loves his siblings and wishes to see their grave sins atoned for in this world.
Maybe that is why Yosef engineers Binyamin’s involvement in the story, in order to see whether the brothers have truly atoned for their sins. Will they once again abandon one of Rachel’s sons, or will they come to his rescue? Upon seeing Yehuda, the brother who initiated his sale, prepared to sacrifice himself in defense of Binyamin, Yosef sees that his brothers’ repentance is complete and he immediately reveals himself.
However, we again ask: Is it Yosef’s job to play God? Surely, it is the Almighty who decides how and when we will be punished for our transgressions? It does seem a little presumptuous that Yosef should organize ‘measure for measure’ scenarios in order to atone for his siblings.
The Abarbanel offers an additional explanation regarding Yosef’s behavior:
Yosef, upon initially recognizing his brothers, was unsure of the correct response. He was left with one of three options:
He could conceal his identity and deal with his brothers in the same way they had treated him. Yet this option seemed unworthy of a man of Yosef’s stature. Even if his brothers were deserving of punishment, there could be no justification for leaving his father in a state of perpetual mourning.
He could reveal himself, reward his brothers with gifts, and send them home to Israel with many riches. Such actions may have been appropriate for his family, but if any political friction were to develop between Egypt and Israel, Yosef would be held under suspicion of collaborating with the enemy. His family connections with the house of Avraham would not be ignored. As Prime Minister of the country, he could not be seen to be favoring leading members of a neighboring State.
He could bring his father and brothers down to Egypt to live with him. However, Yosef’s one remaining worry was that his brothers’ inherent hatred was still prevalent, and that the minute he turned his back they would try to kill him again. Therefore, he endeavored to discover whether his brothers had changed in order to ascertain whether he could successfully carry out his plan to peacefully settle his family in Egypt.
The Abarbanel’s second scenario does not depict Yosef as an individual trying to ensure that his childhood dreams be realized, nor as a man ensuring his brothers’ repentance through atonement. He rather pictures him as a loving and caring brother who simply wants the family reunited, but who knows that he is more than likely to suffer long-term consequences if he immediately reveals his identity.
Yosef had concluded that Am Yisrael’s priority was to be a united entity. This was of such critical importance that he manipulated events in order to bring Ya’akov down to Egypt. Unity could only be forged with the entire family back together again. Since Yosef could not leave, he had to engineer events so that they would come to him, while ensuring that history would not repeat itself.
Yosef was therefore not acting out God’s role by trying to realize his dreams, nor was he acting as God the Judge; he was simply trying to unite Am Yisrael.
If we accept the Abarbanel’s fascinating thesis, we can see how far we must go, however painful it may initially be, to bring about the unity of our people. I believe this to be our top priority. As I have mentioned in previous sichot, our only real enemy is ourselves.
When we are united, we are unstoppable, but when there is disunity and inner conflict we almost totally self-destruct. Throughout Sefer Bereishit, we have seen the three fundamental pillars of our existence standing out again and again – Eretz Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and Am Yisrael. We have to know, and internalize in our lives, that if there is no Am Yisrael then we cannot be worthy of Torat Yisrael, and we certainly cannot be worthy of Eretz Yisrael.
Over the years, I have seen and participated in many demonstrations in Israel. There have been demonstrations about Shabbat; about the desecration of the dead, about giving up portions of the Land of Israel. These demonstrations are all important, and they have been and continue to be necessary to voice an opinion and a derech that should be heard in a Jewish State. But after over 15 years of living in Israel, I have yet to experience a serious campaign about uniting the people of Israel. Yes, there have been monumental events and ceremonies that have stressed the importance of unity, but unless – Heaven forbid – we are at war, I find these ceremonies superficial, albeit with good intentions.
The reality today in Israel is that the religious Zionist community cannot fathom the irreligious community, and vice-versa, not to mention the Haredi and Hassidic communities. Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim are effectively like two different countries with two very contrasting cultures. I believe that if we are to survive as a people, this has to change.
We have seen from the Abarbanel’s explanation how far Yosef was prepared to go, however painful it would initially be, in order to ensure genuine, long-term family unity. The time has come to apply ourselves in the same way – not with annual ceremonial gatherings, but rather with weekly dialogues, interactions, talking to each other, and listening to our fellow Jews.
We must pursue the novel and encouraging idea of traveling to secular ‘strongholds’ in Israeli cities, knocking on people’s doors, and talking to each other, away from the politics and the media. Jew talking to Jew; hearing each other; understanding each other; agreeing to disagree on some issues, but realizing once and for all that we have so much in common. Unity is the only way forward – “Ha’Am im Ha’Am”!