Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yigash 5770/ December 26, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

“I am Joseph.   Is my father still well?”

Rabbi Judah Zoldan

Midrasha for Women

 

 

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants … Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph.  Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him (Gen. 45:1-3). 

What had happened at that moment, that Joseph could no longer restrain himself and hide his identity from his brothers, and why just then did he decide to reveal his identity?   Why did he ask them if Jacob was still well, when it clearly followed from Judah’s speech that he was alive, but mourning and greatly grieving over the loss of Joseph?

Joseph’s reproach

Some of the Sages understood that Joseph did not really want to know whether Jacob was indeed alive, for he knew the answer.   Rather, his words, “Is my father still well,” were a reproach (Hagigah 4b; Genesis Rabbah [Vilna ed.], chapter 93.10-11):

When Rabbi Eliezer came to this verse, he cried:  “His brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.”   If such is the power of reproach by a person of flesh and blood, all the more so the reproach of the Holy One, blessed be He!

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi-Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv) interprets Rabbi Eliezer’s homily as follows (Ha`amek Davar, Gen. 45:3):

The Sages understood the plain sense of the text as an expression of amazement.  Is my father indeed still alive, not dead from worry about me?   For he knew that he was the most beloved of his sons.  This wonderment was a reproach to his brothers, for even if by their considerations they had been right in judging Joseph, nevertheless they should have had compassion and felt for their father, for they knew how strongly he loved him.   Hence Scripture says, “his brothers could not answer him, on account of their fear and shame…  Thus they [the Sages] say, all the more so the reproach of the Holy One, blessed be He, for He, all the more so, knows when a person answers not quite truthfully.

In the course of his speech, Judah noted several times the suffering that had been caused to Jacob by the sale of Joseph and the subsequent events until their trip to Egypt when they brought Benjamin with them, without knowing it was Joseph whom he was addressing.  He concluded his speech by saying (Gen. 44:30-34) :

Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us – since his own life is so bound up with his – when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief…   For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!

The emphasis was on the great grief that would be caused to Jacob by the loss of Benjamin.   Joseph’s reproach was about this:   why did you not think and show concern for Jacob’s grief when you sold me?  To this reproach his brothers could make no response.  Hence Rabbi Eliezer interpreted as follows:  what will we be able to answer the Holy One, blessed be He, on the Day of Judgment, for the Holy One, blessed be He, knows the truth and our answers have not been truthful.

A similar interpretation is suggested by Rabbi Solomon Ephraim Luntz, in Kli Yakar (Gen. 45:3):

Is my father still well? – Even though they had told him he was alive, as could be understood from Judah’s words, in any even Joseph thought that they might have told him so in order to arouse his compassion for the old man and [insure that Joseph] not cause him to die [by refusing to release Benjamin], seeing as his life was so bound up with his [son’s].   Therefore he asked again, “Is my father still well?”  But it seemed otherwise to them in their hearts, and they thought that he meant not to ask whether his father was alive, rather to remind them of their sin.  Therefore he said, “Is my father still well,” as if to say: my father is not your father, for you did not have pity on him in his grief, as if he were not your father; hence they were frightened and could not answer him a word.

Joseph feared lest his father was in bad shape and close to death, and therefore he told them that he was revealing his identity to them because his mercy for Jacob was greater than their mercy had been for Jacob; herein lay the reproach in his words.

In these ways, the commentaries explain the nature of Joseph’s revelation to his brothers, but they do not account for the precise moment Joseph chose for making himself known to them.

Is my father well – in truth?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds a single word in his commentary on this verse:  “Is my father still well?” – in truth?

We suggest the following explanation of this addition.   Perhaps these words of reproach were more complex, assuming that the brothers understood that Joseph was indeed reproaching them, even though Joseph did not have that in mind at all.   In asking, “Is my father still alive,” he sought a precise answer, sufficient to allay the doubts that had been aroused in him in the wake of Judah’s speech.  Is it true that Jacob is still alive?

Ever since Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt, Joseph had been receiving clear messages that Jacob was alive, yet at the same time he had been treating his brothers with apparently premeditated severity.   His feeling, his tears, he either suppressed or went elsewhere to allow them to well forth (Gen. 42:24; 43:30-31).   But now, through his speech, Judah had managed to shake Joseph’s faith in his assumption that Jacob was indeed alive.

How So?

The brothers, with Judah in their lead, had noted that Joseph the viceroy of Egypt was constantly expressing an interest in Jacob, even though he supposedly did not know him at all.   This interest appeared exaggerated, since Jacob was in no way connected with all that was transpiring among them.   Therefore, Judah focused all that he said around Jacob, mentioning him in a variety of contexts throughout his speech:  “your servant my father,” “our father,” “my father,” and several times he managed to rouse feelings of pity in Joseph, the message being how much grief would be caused to Jacob if Benjamin were not to return to him.  The main point was not the grief that would befall Benjamin, for whose sake they were ostensibly fighting, but the grief of Jacob.

At this point misgivings entered Joseph’s heart lest Judah might not have been speaking the truth, but was taking advantage of his extreme interest in Jacob in order to obtain Benjamin’s release, and that in truth Jacob had already died.  Joseph might well have wondered why Judah was dwelling so extensively on what would happen to Jacob, for it would have been more in line for Judah to try to rouse Joseph’s mercy for Benjamin, since he was the one being accused of having stolen the cup.  But, as we have said, it was not Benjamin who was the subject of Judah’s oratory.   At this point Joseph decided to reveal himself to his brothers, in order to obtain a true answer to the question, “is my father still alive,” since the theme of Judah’s speech had made him wonder whether Jacob might actually be dead.  His words here were not intended to reproach them for their deeds, at least not at this point.  What interested him was a true account of Jacob’s fate.  But the brothers viewed his words as reproach for their deeds, even though Joseph had not had that in mind at all.

This was the thrust of Rabbi Eliezer’s homily:  if the words of a human being are sometimes interpreted as reproach, even though that is not the speaker’s aim and his objective is something else altogether, and as a result the listener is incapable of responding to his reproach, then when the Holy One, blessed be He, indeed does reproach us, all the more so are we incapable of answering.  It is not that the brothers could not give true and honest answers, but rather their shock at hearing words of reproach themselves – words that were said with no intention of reproach but were received by them as reproach, so much so as to render them incapable of giving a direct answer.  From the brothers’ state of shock, from the fact that they interpreted his words as reproach regarding the anguish they caused their father, Joseph understood that Jacob was indeed still alive, and therefore he commanded them to return to his father and bring him down to Egypt.