Joseph Recognized His Brothers: A Process of Realization and Refinement

Joseph had evolved from a brash, clever, arrogant young teenager[i], when he was sold by his brothers, into the wise, experienced, quietly confident and capable 30-year[ii]-old person, who was chosen to lead the ancient superpower of Egypt under Pharaoh.

The Bible[iii] recounts how it all began. Imagine the scene. Seventeen-year old Joseph was giving guidance and instructing his older brothers in the fine points of being successful shepherds[iv]. He was also treating some of his brothers like his personal servants[v]. There was also the matter of Joseph reporting to his father Jacob misbegotten tales of his brothers’ alleged indiscretions[vi]. While he believed his reports were true, it turned out they were, in fact, either false or misleading[vii]. In this regard, it is important to appreciate that from Joseph’s point of view, he was well intentioned. He tattled on his brothers about his perceptions of their misbehavior to induce his father to admonish them so that they might improve their conduct. He believed he was helping them that way. However, his brothers knew his allegations against them were in fact false. They were, therefore, furious at Joseph for what they believed to be his fraudulent attempts to demean them in the eyes of their father. The result was toxic and undermined the cohesion of the family.

The Abarbanel[viii] analyzes the roles of Joseph and his brothers, as well as, their father Jacob, in this dysfunctional family drama[ix]. On the one hand, there was the hatred, plotting and callousness of the brothers. On the other hand, there was the hubris of seventeen-year old Joseph, including his self-indulgent, childish and pretentious behavior[x]. Not lacking in vision or ambition, he lorded his prophetic insights over his brothers. Even Jacob had a hand in the mischief by stoking jealousy between the brothers and Joseph. Jacob indulged[xi], favored and treated Joseph differently from his other children[xii]. As the Talmud[xiii] so poignantly records, due to the weight of two sela[xiv] of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him, the matter unfolded and led to our forefathers descending to Egypt. I can’t help but wonder how Jacob might have acted differently if the good counsel of Rachel and Leah had still been available to him; but they had unfortunately both passed away by that time[xv].

Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshitz[xvi] eloquently sums up the tawdry and explosive situation and explains that, instead of sitting together, speaking and remonstrating with each other and eventually making some sort of peace with one another, they refrained from talking and listening to each other. In essence, like so many today, they demonized each other. It was tragic then and it is every bit as unfortunate when it occurs today. Moreover, as the Talmud[xvii] concludes, the unintended consequences can sometimes be catastrophic. This was the kind of sordid behavior that not only caused the original exile and descent into slavery in Egypt, it was also one of the major causes of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile.

Ultimately the brothers determined to rid themselves of what they perceived to be a mortal threat to their lives. At first they considered killing him[xviii], but Judah intervened to save Joseph’s life[xix]. Instead, he proposed selling him and the brothers agreed. Judah initially blithely believed he had done well by Joseph. After all, he had managed to save Joseph’s life, even if that meant being sold into slavery. It wasn’t until later that he was stunned into realizing the error of his ways, but more on this below.

Joseph’s resilience, adaptability and restraint in the face of such adversity and overwhelming circumstances are astonishing. Being disdained and outright rejected by his brothers, shanghaied to Egypt, where he was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a minster in Pharaoh’s government[xx], and alone and cut off from his loving father and any family support, would have broken a lesser person. Yet, despite it all, handsome, charming, intelligent and gifted Joseph, skillfully excelled at every job he was assigned. He succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation and it was obvious to all that this was because of G-d’s blessing[xxi]. Amazingly, he continued to persevere and succeed even while he is incarcerated[xxii] for a crime he didn’t commit[xxiii]. Although, disappointed, when a government minister, he helped, by favorably interpreting his dreams, failed to intercede on his behalf to seek his parole and seemingly forgot him[xxiv], he remained undaunted.

Joseph’s years as a slave, unjust confinement and sudden elevation to the very pinnacle of power had seasoned him. He became a different person from the one his brothers knew. This may help explain why he recognized his brothers; but they didn’t recognize him[xxv]. Thus, even though Joseph closely resembled his father Jacob[xxvi]; the brothers failed to see the family resemblance. It seems the travails Joseph had suffered had taken a toll on his visage[xxvii]. Pharaoh had also changed his name to an Egyptian one and Joseph assumed this new identity. He spoke the Egyptian language and donned the dress, projected the image and sported the demeanor of someone in the exalted position of Viceroy to the Pharaoh. The totality of the effect, especially when viewed from afar, so as to maintain the customary distance afforded a dignitary of Joseph’s stature, yielded a perspective that was deceptive. A mature Joseph, at more than thirty-seven years of age[xxviii] when the famine began and the brothers came to Egypt to buy food, weathered by harsh experiences, unapproachable and elevated to a grand position of authority, bore little resemblance to the sheltered teenage version. It was, indeed, a most effective disguise[xxix], when it came to his brothers, who failed to recognize him.

In his journey to grandeur, Joseph had learnt many cogent lessons. He acquired patience[xxx] and restraint[xxxi]. He also gained an understanding of his own foibles and went through a transformational process of repentance.

Interestingly, it appears that Joseph went through all five steps of Maimonides’ codification[xxxii] of a program of repentance[xxxiii], which includes: (1) crying out in tearful supplication to G-d and asking for help[xxxiv]; (2) acting justly by giving charity[xxxv]; (3) distancing oneself exceedingly from the wrongful conduct[xxxvi] and pursuing only the good and straight path of behavior; (4) changing of place, because exile atones for wrongdoing and leads to humbleness and a new perspective; and (5) changing of identity, so that can honestly say not the same person who perpetrated the misdeed.

The success of Joseph’s repentance process also reaffirmed his faith in G-d and manifested in a most profound and dramatic fashion how Divine providence guided human affairs and most poignantly his own life. Joseph became Yosef HaTzadik (Joseph the Righteous). We can learn many lessons from Joseph and his journey. One is that at a minimum, we are required to do our best at the jobs we undertake; but that alone doesn’t assure success. As Joseph so profoundly appreciated, providing the correct interpretation and having it received with favor by the fickle Pharaoh, who had previously rejected the interpretations of his own team of experts, was a gift from G-d[xxxvii]. So was Joseph’s immediate and miraculous elevation to the Viceroyship. Employing our best efforts is a threshold requirement; but, ultimately, success is a blessing from G-d[xxxviii].

It is suggested that in his process of maturation and refinement, Joseph realized that mere rebuke was not an effective tool to remedy deficiencies in behavior and it could have unintended consequences, such as causing enmity and hatred[xxxix]. Rather, as he came to recognize, enabling self-realization was a much more useful and sustainable path to change. Thus, Joseph, as a result of his growth and development, was able to recognize his brothers and their potential for change, growth and ultimately reconciliation. However, the brothers, who had rationalized their mistreatment of Joseph and all but forgotten him, did not appreciate how people could radically change their behavior and, by extension, identity. They were fixated on Joseph’s old self and, therefore, were unable to recognize the transformed Joseph. Interestingly, when the brothers first arrived in Egypt they began to look for Joseph in all the wrong places[xl]. They could not imagine Joseph being the leader of Egypt. Their perception of him was constrained by their own limitations. They had not yet confronted their own misdeeds and sought to repent. Joseph would use his power and position to enable them to do so.

Judah was the key. He was a leader among the brothers and had conceived of the plan that saved Joseph’s life; but in the process condemned him to a life of slavery. The question was how to trigger his and the memories of the other brothers, in a circumstance where they would have to reflect on what they had done and be jolted into the realization that they had done wrong. Admitting a sin is a fundamental and essential part of the process of repenting it.

Joseph formulated a brilliant and daring plan to accomplish this threshold requirement of repentance. It began when Judah and the brothers[xli] returned from the first buying mission to Egypt, emptied their bags[xlii] and found the silver coins, which they had used to buy the food in Egypt. When they saw the silver coins, they were dismayed, their hearts sank and they were shaken[xliii]. The Talmud notes, this is because at that moment their memories were triggered about their brother Joseph[xliv]. Remember, Joseph had been sold for twenty silver coins[xlv]. The Bechor Shor[xlvi] explains they recognized their predicament was linked to the wrong they had done in selling Joseph and, hence, their trepidation[xlvii]. They knew they would have to return to Egypt, because Joseph had kept Simon hostage. Joseph demanded they return with Benjamin to prove their bona fides[xlviii]. Now they thought they had the additional problem of explaining how it was the money they had paid for the provisions was found returned in their bags. They were concerned they would be labeled thieves if they returned to Egypt and suffer incarceration or worse. Moreover, they would be putting Benjamin at risk if they returned with him to Egypt, as Joseph demanded.

The climactic finale occurs when the brothers return to Egypt a second time to buy more food. They had no choice but to bring Benjamin along with them. Jacob finally relented and allowed him to go, after Judah offered himself as guarantor[xlix]. Once again, Joseph has all the silver coins they paid for food in Egypt[l] placed in their bags with the food. In addition, Joseph cleverly has his silver chalice put in Benjamin’s bag. Joseph then has the brothers intercepted and uncovers the silver coins in the brothers’ bags, as well as, his silver chalice in Benjamin’s bag. The silver chalice serves as a final memory trigger[li], as Joseph intended. Consider, it was silver, not precious gold or jewel encrusted. Why would Joseph place a silver chalice in Benjamin’s bag and why would the brothers bearing so much silver stoop down to the level of stealing a mere silver cup? It was improbable; but that’s the point. Its symbolism is overpowering.

Judah had an awakening upon seeing the silver. As the Midrash[lii] notes, there were three things Judah pondered; what could he say about the first silver, what could he speak about as to the second silver and what could he exclaim about the silver chalice? However, at the time[liii], there were just two visible piles of silver, not three. Thus, the first silver referred to the original sale of Joseph, when Judah had told his brothers what benefit was there to executing Joseph, better to sell him[liv]. Judah may have thought himself a hero at the time; however, as he came to recognize he had erred and his behavior was morally repugnant. He would not make the same mistake again. This time, he was determined to do whatever it took to save Benjamin, including putting his own life at risk in the process. In effect, Judah declared to Joseph, in no uncertain terms, that Joseph had to go through Judah, first.

Joseph recognized things had indeed changed and in the next moment he identified himself, forgave his brothers and reconciled with them. However, his goal was more than just restoring some level of harmony with his brothers. It was to achieve genuine peace within the family.

Seeking peace is a wonderful object; accomplishing it in practice is not so simple. Joseph achieved peace by enlisting all the brothers in a mission[lv]. It was to save Jacob and the entire family from the rigors of the famine, by bringing them all to Egypt and dwelling in the Land of Goshen. Worried they might be diverted from the mission and goal of peace, Joseph even told his brothers not to be quarrelsome on the way, including discussing matters of Halacha (Religious Law)[lvi]. He did not want to squander the opportunity for peace.

Devotion to the mission united everyone in accomplishing a higher purpose, which harnessed their enlightened self-interest, benefiting both them personally, as well as, those they cared about[lvii]. It is one of the more enduring bonds that tie people together. May we all work together to achieve and enjoy the blessings of peace.

[i] Genesis 37:2.

[ii] Genesis 41:46.

[iii] Genesis, Chapter 37.

[iv] Sforno commentary on Genesis 37:2.

[v] JT Peah 1:1.

[vi] JT Peah 1:1 (at pages 4a-b) describes how one of the most profound manifestations of disunity between Joseph and his brothers was his tale bearing about the brothers in reports to their father Jacob. He noted suspicions about their being guilty of eating limbs from live animals. This was in fact an unfounded accusation.

[vii] Genesis Rabbah 84:7.

[viii] See Abarbanel, Parshat Lech Lecha, Genesis 15 (page 212 of Peirush al HaTorah), s.v. V’Acharei H’Hoda’ah ShGalut Mitzraim.

[ix] Genesis Chapter 37. See also Pirke D”Rabbi Eliezer 38:9.

[x] Genesis Rabbah 84:8.

[xi] Genesis Rabbah 84:8.

[xii] Genesis Rabbah 84:9.

[xiii] BT Shabbat 10b.

[xiv] The Talmud uses this relatively minor monetary sum as a potent metaphor to express how even a small gift favoring one child can upset the delicate balance of family relationships among the children and cause a disproportionate amount of pernicious jealousy.

[xv] Rachel passed away while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:17-19) and Leah passed away before Joseph was sold and brought down to Egypt (Seder Olam Rabbah, Chapter 2).

[xvi] An 18th Century Talmudic and Halachic authority, in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Genesis, Parshat Vayeshav (Verse 37:4), at page 73.

[xvii] See BT Yoma 9b, Gittin 55b-56a and Shabbat 119b.

[xviii] Genesis 37:20.

[xix] Genesis 37-26-28.

[xx] Geneis 39:1.

[xxi] Genesis 39:2-6.

[xxii] Genesis 40:21-23.

[xxiii] Genesis, Chapter 39. See also BT Taanit 10b.

[xxiv] Genesis, Chapter 40.

[xxv] Genesis 42:7-8.

[xxvi] Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 2.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 39b and Ketubot 27b) notes that Joseph left without a trace of a beard and now had a full beard.

[xxix] Genesis 42:7.

[xxx] Spending an additional two years (Genesis 41:1) in the Royal Prison, after the release of the Minister of Wine as he foretold, who promptly forgot him (Genesis 40:23). G-d then provided an opportunity for Joseph finally to be paroled and Joseph seized it. Pharaoh needed an interpreter of his dreams and the Wine Minister remembered Joseph and his extraordinary talent. Pharaoh released Joseph so that he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, which he successfully accomplished. Pharaoh then paroled Joseph and made him Viceroy (Genesis 41:9-46).

[xxxi] In resisting the charms of Zulycah, Potiphar’s wife (Genesis, Chapter 39). See A Striking Tale of Role Reversal and Lesson for our Times, by the author, in the Times of Israel, dated 12/7/17.

[xxxii] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4. See also Kesef Mishna commentary thereon.

[xxxiii] Maimonides uses the Hebrew phrase: ‘MeDarchei HaTeshuva’.

[xxxiv] Psalms 107:28.

[xxxv] Proverbs 10:2 and, according to BT Bava Batra 10a, also Proverbs 11:4.

[xxxvi] Jonah 3:10. Rashi in his commentary on BT Rosh Hashanah 16b (s.v. ‘Shinui Ma’aseh’) explains this means no longer committing the wrongdoing. Ritva, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, notes that this includes even things that are not actually sinful, although still not appropriate and making the effort to change the misbehavior.

[xxxvii] Genesis 41:16.

[xxxviii] BT Kiddushin 82a.

[xxxix] Shelah. Torah Shebichtav, Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash, Derech Chaim, Vayeshev 3-6.

[xl] Midrash Tanchuma, Miketz 8:2.

[xli] Other than Simon, who was held hostage by Joseph, as described in Genesis 42:24.

[xlii] Genesis 42:35.

[xliii] Genesis 42:38 and 27-28.

[xliv] JT Brachot 2:8 (page 20a on Sefaria and Mechon Mamre).

[xlv] Genesis 37:28.

[xlvi] Bechor Shor commentary on Genesis 42:28.

[xlvii] See also Malbim on Genesis 42:28

[xlviii] Genesis 42:19-20 and 34.

[xlix] Genesis 43:9.

[l] This time from both the original and current buying trip.

[li] Midrash Lekach Tov, Genesis 42:1.

[lii] Genesis Rabbah 92:9.

[liii] Joseph had returned the original payment of silver coins made by the brothers, on their first buying mission to Egypt (Genesis 41:25-28). However, Jacob assumed a mistake had been made and insisted the brothers bring the money back when they returned to Egypt to buy more food and remit it to the Egyptian authorities (Genesis 43:12).

[liv] Genesis 37:26-27.

[lv] Genesis, Chapter 45.

[lvi] Genesis 45:2.

[lvii] See, for example, Akedat Yitzchak 74:10

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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