Holy Land homesickness – family ties & Parshat Miketz

I’m a homebody- there, I admitted it. When I lived in New Jersey, nothing would make me happier than just spending time with my family and friends. Now, living six thousand miles away from all of that, I can honestly say what I miss the most in my life is being close to my parents, four younger siblings, and other family and friends in the New York area. This is why I find myself utterly confused when reading the story of Yosef’s sale. Yosef is the quintessential homebody- while his brothers are in the field working, he relaxes at home with his father and stepmothers, hangs out with his half-brothers (“וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו”), and, in general, lives a very pleasant home-bound life. All of this changes with Yosef’s dreams and the brothers’ jealousy, and, before we know it, Yaakov’s eleventh son is sold into slavery. However, things eventually turn for the better at the beginning of our parsha, and Yosef appointed viceroy of Egypt, the second-in-command of the powerful country. At this point, alarm bells should be ringing in our heads- Yosef, after several years as a homesick slave in Egypt, finally rose to a position of power. He controlled the country’s grain stock, and was a very potent ruler. Why didn’t he take the time to get in contact with his family in Canaan, to let his long-lost father know that he was alright? In short, why didn’t Yosef “phone home” once he was appointed to avreich over Egypt?

In case a pathos (emotion-based) argument isn’t enough to arouse our curiosity, Ramban (42:9), asks our question even stronger:

ויזכר יוסף את החלומות אשר חלם להם”... יש לתמוה אחר שעמד יוסף במצרים ימים רבים והיה פקיד ונגיד בבית שר גדול במצרים איך לא שלח כתב אחד לאביו להודיעו ולנחמו כי מצרים קרוב לחברון כששה ימים ואילו היה מהלך שנה היה ראוי להודיעו לכבוד אביו ויקר פדיון נפשו
And Yosef remembered the dreams he had-… it is perplexing that after Yosef ruled over Egypt for many years, and he was the officer of the house of the highest officer in Egypt, he didn’t send a single letter to his father to inform him and relieve his pain, for Egypt was a six day trip from Hebron, and [it’s confusing] that Yosef ruled for many years, but couldn’t spare a few days to honor his parents… (רמב”ן בראשית מב:ט)
Hebron, where Yaakov was living, was less than a week away from Egypt. Could Yosef really not have spared two weeks from his many years as ruler to make a visit and cheer up his father (“פודה נפשו”)?!

Ramban continues and attempts to answer our question:

 אבל היה רואה כי השתחויית אחיו לו וגם אביו וכל זרעו אתו אי אפשר להיות בארצם והיה מקוה להיותו שם במצרים בראותו הצלחתו הגדולה שם וכל שכן אחרי ששמע חלום פרעה שנתברר לו כי יבאו כלם שמה ויתקיימו כל חלומותיו

… Rather, Yosef had foreseen that his brothers would bow down to him (in his dreams), and also his father and sons together. He knew that this couldn’t occur in their land (Canaan)- he hoped that it would happen there in Egypt, when he saw how successful he was there. Furthermore, after interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, it became clear that it would be better for them all to come to Egypt (because of the famine), and then Yosef’s dreams would be fulfilled. (רמב”ן שם)

Ramban answers that Yosef saw how everything was unfolding in Egypt- he foresaw that eventually his family would be financially better off in Egypt, and knew that his dreams would be fulfilled this way. Therefore, he held off making contact until the right time, and, as we know, everything did work out in the end.

While this answer seems to make perfect logical sense, as emotionally balanced human beings, we cannot accept that Yosef would put his father through such emotional agony, even to fulfill his childhood dreams. He had every opportunity to send word home that he was all right, and he had more than seven years to bring his family down before things got desperate. Furthermore, we’ve seen that Yosef himself was homesick in Egypt, as he explains to the chamberlain of the butlers in prison. So, despite Ramban’s straightforward approach, our question still stands; why didn’t Yosef contact his family once he rose to power?

Rav Yoel Bin Nun, a student of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav and founder of Yeshivat Har Ezion, presents a more emotional, yet oddly satisfying approach to our quandary. To put it simply, he answers that Yosef didn’t write home because he didn’t think anyone there wanted to hear from him. Allow me to elaborate.

In literary analysis, one of the primary distinctions in a narrative is point of view- there are first person perspectives, where the story is told from inside a character’s head, and there are third person, or omniscient, perspectives, where the reader is privy to everyone’s feelings at once, and is not limited by one character’s perceptions. In analyzing stories in Tanach, we often find that the narrative follows the latter type of perspective, and we usually will have an almost divine point of view in some tales in scripture. When this happens, it often becomes difficult to appreciate the fact that the characters of the story, our forefathers, did not have access to the same background information that we do- they couldn’t know what other people were thinking, because they didn’t see their world the same way that we read about it later. With this in mind, Rav Bin Nun writes, a new story of Yosef’s sale emerges:

Yosef, Yaakov’s apparent favorite son, begins having controversial and unpopular dreams. At first, his brothers become unhappy (“הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ, אִם-מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ”), but, afterwards, even Yaakov gets involved and shows his displeasure to his son’s dreams (“מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ? הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוות לְךָ, אָרְצָה?!”). Next thing we know, Yaakov sends Yosef to check on the brothers, and they sell him into slavery. We know that afterwards, the brothers show Yaakov his torn and blood-stained tunic, but, remembering that Yosef wasn’t privy to the same omniscient point of view that we are, it’s quite possible that he thought his father was also in on the plan (especially since there is a pattern in our forefathers’ families of a “bad son” being removed from the family at a younger age) .Even those who sold Yosef to Egypt, the Ishamaalites and Midaanites, were cousins of his family- they could have been part of the “big conspiracy” as well. So, Yosef, at the young age of seventeen, is sold into slavery thinking his entire family had successfully got rid of him for good (which explains why Yosef names his oldest son, Menashe, ” כִּי-נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹקים אֶת-כָּל-עֲמָלִי, וְאֵת כָּל-בֵּית אָבִי- For G-d has allowed me to forget all of my toiling in my father’s house– Why would Yosef want to forget his home unless he was forcibly and permanently removed?). As Rav Bin Nun writes:

Joseph’s entire world is built on the misconception that his father has renounced him, while Jacob’s world is destroyed by the misconception that Joseph is dead. Joseph’s world is shaken when his brothers stand before him, not knowing who he is, and bow down to him. At that moment, he must question this new reality –

(“he remembers the dreams he dreamt about them”)

and is thrown back into the past. Stalling for time, he begins a line of inquiry – and action – which is geared to one end: to find out why his father had rejected him, if at all. He plots to keep Benjamin, so that his maternal brother can tell him all that has transpired. This was Joseph’s plan to find out what had happened and how to deal with it. [1]

Everything changes when the brothers come down to Egypt- Yosef is faced with a past he wanted to forget, a past that he thought wanted to forget him. But when the brothers start to speak about a lost brother, Yosef begins to wonder what truly happened- he tries to get his only full brother Binyamin down to Egypt so he can personally ask what happened. Yet, the brothers seemed to have changed their previously selfish feelings- they don’t let Yosef separate Binyamin from the rest. Yehuda, who had personally guaranteed his youngest brother’s safety, personally beseeches Tzafnat-Paneach (nee Yosef) to let Binyamin go, begging:

וַיֹּאמֶר עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי, אֵלֵינוּ:  אַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם, כִּי שְׁנַיִם יָלְדָה-לִּי אִשְׁתִּי וַיֵּצֵא הָאֶחָד, מֵאִתִּי, וָאֹמַר, אַךְ טָרֹף טֹרָף; וְלֹא רְאִיתִיו, עַד-הֵנָּה

And your servant my father (Yaakov) said to me: You know that my wife [Rachel] bore me two children, and one left from me and I was told ‘he was torn to pieces’, and I never saw him again. (בראשית מד:כז-כח)

With this, Yosef finally realized what we, as omniscient readers, knew the entire time- that there had been a set up by the brothers to get rid of him without Yaakov knowing. Finally, Yosef can’t hold it in any longer, and:

ְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.
And Yosef could not restrain himself anymore before all of those who stood before him, and he cried out “remove everyone from before me.” So there stood no man with him, when Yosef made himself known to his brothers. (בראשית מה:א)
Finally, after decades of a split family, famine, power and moral struggles, Yosef is reunited with his brothers, and everyone lives happily ever after… at least for a couple of generations, until the Jews are enslaved.

So, we see that there is entirely different way of explaining Yosef’s illogical lack of contact with home, one which follows the text yet reconciles the obvious complicated emotions going on in the story as well. While Rav Bin Nun’s approach seems more palatable to our emotionally stable minds, I think there’s an important lesson to learn from Ramban’s mission-based idea.

Ramban’s approach to our question has an important underlying message which is very relevant to our lives as well. According to him Yosef was very homesick- he knew that his father Yaakov thought him dead, and knew that every minute spent apart was torture to him. Yet, Yosef knew something else, something even more important: that every second that he held out and stayed anonymously in Egypt brought him closer to a fulfilment of his dreams, and salvation for his family from the famine. Did he feel homesick? Sure. Was it difficult? Definitely. But, Yosef knew that he had to keep going, that his endgame was too important to give up because of mere homesickness. This message, so central to Yosef’s existence based on Ramban’s approach, is also an important answer to one of the biggest hesitations to making the important decision of moving to Israel and making aliyah.

Publius Ovidius Naso, a Roman poet from the first century CE, famously wrote “Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” As I’ve mentioned before, for those of us who were born in the Diaspora, it is often very difficult to leave everything behind to make the all-important move to Israel. We have family who haven’t yet left, friends who aren’t going anywhere, luxuries and places that cannot be found across the world. These can often lead to an understandable amount of homesickness, and at the beginning of the aliyah journey, olim chadashim can sometimes be discouraged from these negative feelings. At times like this, we can draw from the strength of Yosef Hatzadik, who avoided contact with his father for twenty years, even as Yaakov thought he was dead, to ensure the continuation of the Jewish People. Luckily, for us, our challenge isn’t as daunting as Yosef’s. In a world of unlimited international calling, Skype, and $400 mistake fares, moving 9000 kilometers away from home isn’t so undoable, and the difference that even one oleh makes for the Jewish State is bigger than we could ever imagine. So, for those of us who worry about homesickness when contemplating making the all-important move, remember that while Publius Naso believed that one can never forget their “native soil,” we, as forward-thinking Jews, have a responsibility to forget our personal native lands to rejoin to our national native land. And, in the footsteps of Yosef, we might even end up bringing our families with us, only this time coming home from the exile. Only through this can we merit to live up to our forebear Yosef’s legacy, and after a few months in the Holy Land, our homesickness will be long forgotten, for, after all, we will have finally returned home, for good.

1- Yeshivat Har Etzion Virtual Bet Midrash: “Why didn’t Yosef contact his father?” By Rav Yoel Bin Nun, translated by Zvi Shimon-

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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