Joseph was willing to be their brother, but he demanded of them to behave as brothers should
In last week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we read about Joseph repeatedly accusing his innocent brothers of spying, of stealing and of lying. He threatens to enslave them and puts them in prison. The superficial reader might think that Joseph wants to get back at his brothers for what they did to him when they threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. But from this week’s portion of Vayigash, we learn that Joseph forgave his brothers wholeheartedly for their deeds. Joseph even comforted them and calmed them as he unveiled the great faith that directed his life:
“But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you… And now, you did not send me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:5-8).
Why, then, did Joseph abuse his brothers and not reveal immediately that he was Joseph, their brother, and that he forgives them for what they did to him? What did Joseph hope to gain by doing this, and what are we to learn from it?
And what led to Joseph breaking down and bursting into tears as he reveals his identity to his brothers?
Joseph had suffered terrible injustices. His brothers sold him into slavery, which had two implications. The first is personal. Naturally, Joseph was hurt, and it would make sense that he would therefore hate his brothers and want to take revenge. We would all relate to him had he acted this way. But there is another, more objective, side to the sale of Joseph into slavery. The actual act of selling a brother is awful. It is hard to describe a lack of brotherhood so striking that brothers are prepared to abandon their sibling to such an evil fate.
There was a serious problem here that the brothers had to repair.
Indeed, Joseph wholeheartedly forgave his brothers, but that was only relevant to the personal aspect of the damage they did to him. But even after this forgiveness, Joseph could not make up with his brothers before ascertaining that they had repaired their lack of brotherhood. He was willing to be their brother, but he demanded of them to behave as brothers should.
He fabricated an entire scenario to have his brothers stand before him with Benjamin. He then created a difficult situation: he accused Benjamin of stealing a goblet and then waited to see how the other brothers would respond. Some 22 years after failing the test of brotherhood with him, he had them face another one. How would they react this time? Would they abandon Benjamin to slavery in Egypt?
This time, they passed the test. Judah approached Joseph and fought for Benjamin’s freedom. He wants him freed at any price, even the highest, and expressed willingness to be enslaved instead of Benjamin! Only now could Joseph let his feelings show, and he burst into tears as he confessed to his stunned brothers, “I am Joseph.”
Joseph could have revealed his identity to his brothers as soon as they came down to Egypt, but then he would not have led them to this reform. Had Joseph revealed his identity right away, the brothers’ change would have been merely cosmetic. Joseph wished to examine if they had undergone a real change in personality. For this, he had to put them to a test of brotherhood again. Only when he saw that they acted toward Benjamin as brothers should, only when he clarified that the problem was dealt with at its core, only then could Joseph reveal his identity and make peace with his brothers.
We all face tests of brotherhood. We all have families, and at different points in time, we face these questions: How much effort am I prepared to make for my brother? Do I worry enough about my relatives? Do I invest time, energy and thought to help my siblings or my parents?
This week’s Torah portion teaches us that even if we have failed in tests of brotherhood in the past, it does not mean we will in the future. There will always be other opportunities in which we can succeed. ■
PLATE DEPICTING Joseph sold by his brothers, 1550-1554, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.