In this week’s Parsha, we read of the continuing story of the family dynamic of Yaakov and his sons. The story seemingly begins at the beginning of Parshat VaYeshev (Perek 37) and continues until the end of Sefer Breishit. The confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef, with which our Parsha opens, sets the stage for Yosef’s climactic revelation of his identity to his brothers, leading to rapprochement and reconciliation in the family. (For an overview of the textual structure of the story, as well as a fascinating analysis of how the different elements of the story fit together, see R. Elchanan Samet’s Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, the second series, Parshat Miketz. I intend to take a different approach to the story.)
I have often wondered about many elements of the story of Yosef and his brothers, specifically about the events which lead up to the aforementioned confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. Specifically, two critical events seem not to “add up”. Firstly, when the brothers first meet Yosef they find themselves accused of nothing less than sedition, charged with spying against Egypt. Why they would be accused of such behavior is of course beyond the brothers’ understanding, and is far from clear to us as well. In a well known comment, Rashi (42:12-13) quotes the Midrash in an attempt to answer this question. The brothers, says the Midrash, entered the city through ten different gates rather than through a single gate. While their purpose was to hunt for Yosef, Yosef himself used their behavior as a way of accusing them of spying. This answer, of course leaves much to be desired. Was it really Yosef’s practice to have his customs officers follow the trajectory of every individual traveler from the multitudes who were coming to Egypt and report on them to Yosef prior to the travelers reporting to Yosef? Even if we accept the Ramban’s explanation (42:6,9-13) that suspicions were aroused by the brothers clearly being nobility, it is still difficult to understand how they would have stood out so prominently through their separate arrivals that it would have been reported to Yosef.
Having falsely accused the brothers of spying, Yosef’s behavior now takes another bizarre turn. Innocence can only be proven, declares Yosef, by bringing your youngest brother to me. How exactly this would prove their innocence, Yosef does not explain. Moreover, the idea of bringing an imposter to pose as Binyamin never seems to occur to the brothers (or Yaakov, for that matter). (For a possible answer to the first question, see the Abarbanel on the end of Parshat Miketz).
The second problem that I would like to raise is the brothers’ behavior upon their return to Mitzrayim. Who exactly do the brothers believe that they are dealing with? Having found the money with which they had originally paid for the provisions that they had bought during their first visit to Egypt hidden in their provision bags, the brothers have even more reason to fear the mercurial behavior of the Egyptian ruler. Their confusion and anxiety is only heightened by the continued peculiar actions of Yosef upon their return. The Torah itself testifies to their astonishment when Yosef seats them by age order (43:44) when they sit for dinner. If all of the above is true, one would expect that they would have been extra cautious in all their dealings with this individual.
Astonishingly, the opposite is the case! Having once had their bags tampered with, does it occur to anyone that perhaps they should check to make sure that they weren’t tampered with a second time? Apparently not. Moreover, when they are tracked down by Yosef’s guards and accused of stealing Yosef’s chalice does anyone stop to think that they might have been set up? Rather than responding suspiciously to yet another set of trumped up charges from the mouth of this unstable ruler, the brothers throw caution to the wind, proclaiming their innocence and taking upon themselves a most severe punishment should they be proven guilty. The results of this behavior lead us to the beginning of our Parsha, and to the showdown between Yehuda and Yosef. But for the intemperate and ill advised behavior of the brothers, this showdown would have, and should have, never occurred.
I began this analysis by stating that the story of the Yosef and his brothers seemingly began in Parshat VaYeshev. I would like to suggest, however, that the story begins much earlier, in Parshat VaYetze. It is there that we learn of the genesis of Yaakov’s family, beginning with Lavan’s treacherous behavior in substituting Leah for Rachayl on Yaakov and Rachayl’s wedding night and for the next twenty one years until Yaakov’s final break from his father-in-law. The story of the brothers begins with the competition that develops between Leah and Rachayl over who will bear the lion’s share of the Shevatim. Rashi (29:34) quotes the Midrash Tanchuma which states that both Leah and Rachayl were aware that there would be twelve sons divided amongst four wives. By the birth of Levi, Leah is already heaving a sigh of relief, knowing that she has already borne her share. With the subsequent birth of Yehuda Leah is overjoyed, realizing that she has been blessed with more than her share of Yaakov’s sons. This competition, which continues until the birth of Binyamin, ends with the tragic death of Rachayl when the family returns to Eretz Canaan.
I would like to suggest that the segment of the story which describes the return of Yaakov to Eretz Yisrael, foreshadows the events which will lead them back to Galut. When Yaakov is escaping from Lavan, the Torah tells us Rachayl steals her father’s terafim. Lavan gives chase to the fleeing Yaakov and his family, finally catching him at Har Gilaad. When asked about the Terafim, Yaakov, unaware that Rachayl had stolen them, denies any knowledge of their whereabouts and proceeds to curse whoever took them. Now, history is repeating itself with Yaakov and Rachayl’s sons, where Binyamin is the (unwitting) perpetrator and Yaakov’s sons are thrust into the role played earlier by their father.
As an aside, it is interesting to note the parallel between the chalice and the terafim. Many mefarshim reject Rashi’s contention that the terafim were idols, suggesting instead that they were objects that Lavan used for sorcery (see, for example Ramban and Rashbam). Most mefarshim explain that the chalice was used for similar purposes (see for example Rashbam on 44:5). This further strengthens our contention that the two events are part of the same story.
We are of course familiar with the idea that the brothers selling Yosef into slavery was in order to create a situation whereby Yaakov and his family would ultimately leave Eretz Yisrael and settle in Mitzrayim. Yosef himself suggests this when he reveals himself in our Parsha to his stunned brothers (45:5), and repeats this contention after Yaakov’s death (50:20). In that instance Yosef is honest enough to acknowledge that the motives of the brothers were wrong, but Hashem made them come out right. The brothers too sense Hashem’s hand in the events as they unfold, though in a different context. They sense Divine retribution, seeing their misfortune as being directly linked to their sale of Yosef (42:21-22). But this understanding is superficial. Upon discovering their money was returned to them their reaction is one of total bewilderment, “Ma zot asah E-lokim lanu”, “what hath Gd done to us?” (42:28). The Rashbam explains that they were confused. They could understand why the Egyptian ruler had treated them as he did, that was “mida c’neged mida”. But why was their money returned? Why were they being rewarded?
According to our approach the brothers’ confusion is symptomatic of their lack of true comprehension of the Hashgacha at play. They see the superficial connection between their predicament and their misdeeds but fail too comprehend the more subtle expressions of Hashem’s hand shaping events.
What is happening here, I believe, is an elaborate display of Hashgacha. It was Hashem’s will that Bnei Yisrael go to Mitzrayim and the brothers are too focused on their guilt to start questioning the logic of the circumstances which they find themselves in on the one hand, and too swept up by events to behave rationally on the other. As a result they fall prey to Yosef’s traps. They don’t think too deeply about why they are being accused of being spies, or how they can escape the accusation. And when events seem to swing in their favor, they don’t think to look for the snare that awaits them. And so the bait is finally set in the trap that reveals Yosef to them and leaves them no choice but to join Yosef in Mitzrayim.
Was this the only way for Hashem to achieve his goal? Of course not. But in this way the brothers are both punished for their treatment of Yosef and given the chance (which they seize) at redemption by protecting Binyamin. And we are left to reflect on the haunting Midrash, quoted by Rashi in Parshat VaYeshev. “V’nireh ma yihiyu chalomotav” “and we will see what becomes of his dreams”(37:20) “They (the brothers) said we will kill him, and Hashem answered…we will see whose word comes true, theirs or Mine.”
- Michael Susman