Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 16 December 2017 / 28 Kislev 5778

Parshat Mikeitz

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Restoring Brotherly Love

The drama in this week’s parashah is spellbinding. Upon recognizing his brothers, Yosef designs an elaborate plan to test their allegiance, and seemingly bring about the realization of the dreams of his youth. But, how are we to understand Yosef’s behavior? He has been viceroy in Egypt for nine years — did it not occur to him to send a message to his grieving father that he was alive and well? Or at least now, reveal himself to his brothers immediately, if only for his father’s sake? Surely, a man of Yosef’s intelligence could not have believed that he was obliged to put himself at the service of his dreams; if the dreams had fateful significance, their realization could have been left to the One Who sent them. And a man of Yosef’s character surely could not have intended senseless harassment in retaliation for his brothers’ wrongs.

If Yosef wished only superficial restoration of the family relationship, this could have been achieved immediately, even years earlier. But Yosef wished to restore a warm and healthy family relationship. For this, two things would be required: he would have to change his opinion of his brothers, and they would have to change their opinion of him.

After experiencing the shocking callousness which met his entreaties from the pit, the only way for Yosef to overcome his natural feelings of resentment to his brothers was to be convinced that they had changed. Only if he could prove that their hearts had been warmed and their souls had been moved could he erase those feelings. And so, he devised the test: when faced with the real prospect of life imprisonment and their families’ starvation, would they still choose not to deprive their father of another son? When their actions proved their allegiance and change of heart, Yosef could banish from his heart the bitterness that remained.

But what about their feelings towards him? The feelings that led to his alienation in the first place? Yosef remembered his dreams (Ber. 32:9). He remembered how they had caused his brothers to suspect him of lust for power, how they had felt so threatened by him that they were driven to sell him. These feelings would be magnified tenfold now, if, as viceroy, with good reason to take his revenge, he revealed his identity to them. The rift of their youth would have become an unbridgeable gulf.

First, Yosef makes known to them the extent of his governing power in Egypt. It must be made abundantly clear to them that this man can do with them as he wishes. Then, through the course of events, Yosef reveals his true character. When he deals kindly with them and repays evil with good, he hopes they will change their view of him. With all of the pieces in place, the stage is set for his revelation in next week’s parashah. At that moment, when the blindfold would drop, it would be possible for both Yosef and his brothers to restore the warm, brotherly relationship that would be essential to the survival and flourishing of this emerging nation of Bnei Yisrael, the sons of Israel.

  • Source: Commentary, Bereishet 42:9

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