I can think of no scene with more pathos than the one in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Every year when I hear him cry out [Bereishit 45:3] “I am Joseph! Is my father really alive?” I shiver. After Joseph tells his brothers who he really is they all have a good cry [Bereishit 45:14]: “[Joseph] fell on his brother Binyamin’s neck and wept and Binyamin wept on his neck”. Rav Elie Munk writes that these were tears of joy intermingled with tears of sadness. They were tears of joy because the brothers had been reunited after more than twenty years. They were tears of sadness because they all understood that this would not be the last time that Jews would be torn from each other. Future exiles awaited them.

What spurs Rav Munk’s comment is more than likely the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [16b] that asserts that Joseph and Binyamin did not cry tears of joy. Rather, Joseph cried because of the two Batei HaMikdash built in Binyamin’s inheritance that would one day be destroyed, and Binyamin cried over the Mishkan that would come to rest in Joseph’s territory of Shiloh and would one day be destroyed[1].

The Talmud’s comment seems to strip the verse of its most elementary meaning. Joseph and his brothers were human beings with human emotions. They had been through hell and back. They had every reason to cry. The Siftei Chachamim, an amalgam of commentaries on Rashi, offers support for the Talmud’s explanation by sending us back to one verse before the tears begin to fall [Bereishit 45:13]. Joseph tells his brothers “You shall tell my father [of] all my honour in Egypt and all that you have seen, and you shall hurry and bring my father down here”. Bring my father down here. Years earlier, at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit bein ha’Betarim), Hashem had foretold to Avraham [Bereishit 15:13] “Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years”. While Avraham and his children all knew what awaited them, they did not know when it was going to transpire. So when Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy grain, they all assume that they will return to Canaan to weather the famine. Joseph’s re-entry into the picture changes everything. Given the new situation, the best thing for Yaakov and his family to do is to go down to Egypt to live with Joseph. But Joseph and his brothers are not fools. They are fully aware that this is “it”. This is the beginning of the dreaded exile and so they cry tears of sadness. Through their prophetic powers they see that this exile will not be their last exile. The Children of Israel will experience destruction more than once in the future. And so the brothers cry even more.

Let’s open the aperture a little wider. Why was the Egyptian exile necessary? Was it a punishment for something that Avraham did?[2] Was it something that had to happen for some cosmic reason known only to Hashem? Or was there perhaps some reason that human logic could comprehend? Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’ hypothesis begins with the following sentence: “Because of [the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers caused by Yaakov giving Joseph a coat of many colours] the prophecy given at the Covenant of the Pieces came to fruition.” Rav Hirsch contends that the Children of Israel could never have become the nation of Am Yisrael  had they remained in Canaan. Had they not left Canaan they eventually would have assimilated within the surrounding people. Only by uprooting them and planting them in a country that was inherently anti-Semitic could they form and strengthen their own national identity. Egypt was to be this country. Years later, continues Rav Hirsch, the ghettos into which the Jews were relegated were “tools in the hands of Hashem” whose twofold purpose was to separate the Jews from the sinful culture of the Middle Ages and to reinforce the importance of the Jewish family.

Rav Hirsch takes his theory one step further, noting that the Babylonian and the Roman exiles were caused by unfounded hatred[3]. “The furnace and the suffering of the exile refined and purified the people and enabled them to develop a sense of equality and brotherhood.” Luleh mistefineh, Rav Hirsch has taken his theory one step too far.

My son, Elyassaf, hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that there is a seminal difference between the Egyptian exile and the Roman exile, an exile from which we have still not completely extricated ourselves: The Egyptian exile was proactive – it served a necessary purpose. It had to happen[4]. The Roman exile, on the other hand, was reactive. Am Yisrael had sinned and deserved punishment. Hashem always tries to punish in a way that both addresses and redresses the crime. If we had such a difficult time being together, Hashem would put us in a position where national unity was the only thing that stood between our nation and its destruction. But it didn’t have to happen. Had the Jewish people gotten along, it is possible that the second Beit HaMikdash would not have been destroyed.

I’d like to take Elyassaf’s distinction one step further and argue that the Egyptian exile did not have to occur, either. At the Covenant of the Pieces Hashem tells Avraham that his children would be exiled and subjugated for “four hundred years”. It can easily be shown chronologically that the exile was much shorter. The Midrash calculates that Am Yisrael were in Egypt for only two hundred and ten years and that they were “enslaved” for less than one hundred years. In fact, the Midrash teaches that the exodus from Egypt occurred exactly four hundred years after the Covenant of the Pieces. The upshot is that Hashem never bound Himself to a four-hundred year exile. The exile could be shortened “as required”. If this is so, why couldn’t Hashem have shortened the exile even further, say to twenty years? I choose the number twenty because this was the amount of time that Yaakov spent in exile in Aram with his treacherous uncle Lavan. During these twenty years Yaakov married, raised a family, and learnt how to deal with all types and variants of anti-Semitism. It could be said that in Aram Yaakov forged a nation. Why, then, couldn’t his time abroad be considered payment for the exile predicted in the Covenant of the Parts?

The answer is that it could have. The Egyptian exile did not have to happen the way it did. Before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers he throws them in jail, which causes them to lament [Bereishit 42:21]: “Indeed, we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has befallen us”. They fully understood that had they not mistreated Joseph they would not be in this situation. They had no idea how right they were. Had they accepted Joseph with love, their future, nay, the future of the entire world, might have turned out completely differently. Perhaps the family of Yaakov would have remained in Canaan. Perhaps Hashem would have retroactively shortened a four-hundred year sentence to merely twenty years. It only seems inconceivable because our sins forced history to turn out differently.

The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [32b] teaches that “Everything is in the hands of Heaven other than the fear of Heaven.” Our future is not set in stone. We have the power to determine what will be. Mistaking punishment for our sins for the realization of a prophecy is worse than “missing the point”. Punishment is effective only if the person being punished understands [a] that he is being punished, and [b] what he is being punished for. Only if we own up to our deeds and admit that our situation is not predestined can we make the right decisions that will bring the Redemption, speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] In order to understand the Talmud, we must reinterpret the Torah as saying that “Joseph cried because of Binyamin’s neck”. Rav Yanki Tauber teaches that the Beit HaMikdash is compared to a neck because it connects the head [i.e. heaven] with the body [i.e. our corporeal world.

[2] There are multiple midrashim that suggest that this is indeed the case. The identity of Avraham’s sin is debatable. Some authorities accuse him of lack of faith. Others accuse him of making a land-for-peace deal with the King of Gerar.

[3] Rav Hirsch’s source regarding national infighting before the Babylonian exile is unclear.

[4] The Torah [Devarim 4:20] refers to Egypt as a “fiery furnace” in which Am Yisrael was forged.