Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
The main narrative of Parshat Miketz is the story of Yosef’s exit from the prison in which he was incarcerated as a result of the false accusations made by the wife of Potiphar, Yosef’s Egyptian master. Later in the parsha, we learn more about Yosef’s estrangement from his brothers.
Two of Pharaoh’s ministers were imprisoned in the same jail as Yosef: the Chief Butler, and the Chief Baker. Both men have dreams, and Yosef successfully interprets them. Pharaoh himself dreams two dreams, both of which greatly trouble him. The first is about skinny cows devouring fat ones, while the second features thin sheaves of wheat devouring plump ones. In both cases, the weak devours the strong, and completely disappears.
The Chief Butler remembers having met a Hebrew in prison who could interpret dreams, and suggests that Pharaoh use the Hebrew’s dream interpretation services. Pharaoh complies, and orders that Yosef be removed from prison. Sure enough, Yosef succeeds in interpreting the dreams, and even offers his own practical suggestions for coping with the years of famine that the dreams predicted. Pharaoh is impressed by Yosef’s interpretation skills and creativity, and appoints him as his deputy.
Part of the dream concerned a famine that was to plague Egypt, and indeed, the entire Middle East is afflicted with a serious drought, forcing Yosef’s brothers – who were living in the Land of Israel – to head down to Egypt to buy food. Yosef discovers them, accuses them of espionage, and after the ensuing argument, releases them home, insisting that they deliver their younger brother, Binyamin, to him.
Yaakov hesitates to dispatch the brothers once more, fearing what could happen to Binyamin, and only after Yehuda’s repeated entreaties and promises, Yaakov agrees to send them back to Egypt. Upon their second visit to Egypt, Yosef orders that a silver goblet be secretly placed in Binyamin’s sack, and then accuses the brothers of theft.
The main theme with which our Sages wrestle in this parsha is understanding Yosef’s behavior towards his brothers, and towards his father in particular. Yosef hadn’t seen his father is over twenty years, and during this time, he makes no attempt whatsoever to establish any kind of contact with him. No unique imaginative abilities are needed to understand the devastation felt by the aging father, someone who had been mourning a beloved son who had apparently been killed by a wild beast.
Wasn’t Yosef aware of this? Why didn’t he make any attempt to tell him where he was? Many interpretations attempt to analyze and understand Yosef’s thoughts. The text of the Torah gives us no clues to the motives behind his actions.
Yosef is undoubtedly incensed by what his brothers had done to him. He never forgets how they had conspired to kill him, and then compromised among themselves by selling him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites. He wonders if any kind of family can survive in which one brother plots to kill another.
Yosef has only one way of answering this question. He would test his brothers’ behavior toward their youngest brother, Binyamin, who was born of the same mother as was Yosef. He will try to assess whether they feel any solidarity with him, and whether they are prepared to sacrifice their lives for him.
The brothers had indeed sinned towards Yosef, and had severely wronged him. But mistakes happen. The real question was if they had learned something from their mistake, and if they would try to correct it. They will be tested when their brother is accused of theft and thrown in prison. What will they do? Would they help their brother without delay, or leave him to his dismal fate?
Yosef was prepared to let his father despair for twenty years if it meant that Yosef would be able to truly reunite the family. Yosef wants to see how prepared the sons of Leah are to do something for one of Rachel’s children – the same Rachel who had tormented their mother. Had they learned their lesson from the sale of Yosef? Had they realized that even if a brother takes a different path, there are certain red lines in relationships between brothers that must not be crossed?
People don’t sell their brothers, and they certainly don’t try to harm them. Yosef, who wants to reunite the family, is ensuring that this new bond will be genuine and strong.
Over the course of our history, we have had to confront external opponents, and in some cases, there were internal disagreements on the best way to wage battles. The lesson Yosef taught his brothers and us, is that even when we don’t agree, and even when we have arguments, we remain brothers, and we will have to take responsibility for our brothers’ iniquities, as well. In any case – we won’t abandon a brother.