Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hanukah/ Parashat Mikketz 5768/ December 8, 2007

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,



Joseph and His Brothers: A New Approach


Prof. Yehiel Domb


Department of Physics


Joseph’s peculiar behavior towards his brothers who had come to Egypt to buy food has evoked the wonderment of Jewish scholars, thinkers and exegetes for many generations.   His first response to their arrival was to act like a stranger to them.  His vehement insistence that they bring Benjamin down to him was something which surely would cause his father great pain; his order to put his goblet into the sack of his totally innocent brother would surely cause great heartache to Benjamin, born of the same mother; these demand thorough investigation.   Aside from this, several theories have been set forth answering the question why Joseph made no effort to contact his father and inform him that he was alive and well.   We shall attempt to answer these questions by means of a close look at the facts themselves.

How did Joseph imagine his brothers when he was taken down to Egypt?   All he knew of them was that they hated him, that they were prepared to cast him into a pit, to sell him into slavery, and perhaps even kill him.  He knew that they were the sons of Jacob, the grandsons of Isaac, and the progeny of our patriarch Abraham.  But some of these progeny had been dismissed as not chosen – Ishmael and his descendants, and Esau and his descendants.  Joseph was very close to his father and apparently knew in detail about the Lord’s promise to Abraham regarding the historic role destined for his children.  But the promise was not directed at both of Isaac’s sons, rather only to Jacob.  

Joseph may have thought that a similar parting of ways might also occur among Jacob’s children; the sons of Rachel would be chosen to continue the line and fulfill the destiny, and the sons of Leah would be rejected and would go their own way.  Therefore, when the brothers did not recognize Joseph when they came down to Egypt, this afforded him an excellent opportunity to rescue his brother Benjamin from their hands and become reunited with him as the ones who would continue Jacob’s line.  Apparently Joseph did not believe that his father was still alive after the dreadful shock he must have suffered upon hearing that his beloved son had disappeared.   The fact that his brothers spoke about their father seemed to him only a pretext for arousing his mercy.   Recall that later, when Joseph decided to make himself known to his brothers, after Judah’s dramatic speech, he asked them explicitly:  “I am Joseph.   Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3).

In order to carry out his plan, Joseph demanded that his brothers prove the truth of their story and required them to bring him Benjamin.  Due to the severe famine, the brother had no choice but to comply with his request.   This provides an answer to the question why Joseph did not make efforts to contact his father:   first, he was convinced that he was no longer alive.  Second, the only way to get to his father was by means of his brothers, in whom he had no faith.

The legends in Sefer ha-Yashar provide an enlightening comment on the encounter between Joseph and Benjamin (also presented in Yalkut Am Lo’ez).*   The Torah hints that at the festive dinner that Joseph gave for his brothers he conversed secretly with his brother Benjamin.  Sefer ha-Yashar explains that Joseph seized the opportunity to reveal his identity to Benjamin and inform him of his plan:

Joseph said to him:  I am Joseph, your brother.  Do not reveal this to your brothers.  I am going to send you off with them, and they will leave.  Then I will order them brought back into town and will take you from them.  If they are willing to give themselves up … to save you, then I will know that they have repented of what they did to me and I will make myself known to them.   If they abandon you, then I will keep you and you will live with me; and I will send them off, and they will go without my making myself known to them.

We all know that when the brothers faced the great trial that Joseph set up for them, Judah in his impressive speech succeeded in displaying tremendous devotion, patently showing that he and all his brothers had truly repented and that they were worthy of being included in the Lord’s promise to Abraham.   This speech led to reunification of the family and to ending Joseph’s anger at his brothers.


*   I am deeply indebted to Rabbi David Carmel for calling my attention to this comment.