Joseph could not control himself before all who were standing before him, and he called, “Remove everyone from before me.” So, no one was standing with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. He let forth his voice in weeping, and the Egyptians heard, and Pharaoh’s house heard. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified of him (Genesis 45:1-3).
Judah intervenes on behalf of his youngest brother, Benjamin, who is accused of stealing Pharaoh’s goblet. He offers himself as a slave in place of his brother, an ironic twist given it is Judah that suggested to his brothers that Joseph be sold into slavery in the first place. Now unwittingly, Judah is condemning himself to become the slave to the one sold into slavery. It is at this point that Joseph can no longer restrain himself. He cries and uncovers his true identity. What motivates Joseph at this point to change his state of mind? Up to this point he has maintained his cover; hence to fore he has imprisoned all his brothers, accused them of being spies, framed them for stealing, imprisoned Simon for an extended amount of time, and now intends to take the innocent Benjamin as a slave.
The commentators provide different explanations. Emotionally, for Joseph to listen to Judah’s protestations, that he is personally responsible for his brother’s welfare and that his father would never survive him returning without Benjamin, borders on incredulity. Joseph blurts out “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” as if to say, “Did father survive when you sold me?!” Another explanation looks at Joseph waiting for the moment in which he is sure that his brothers have done teshuva, repentance for their evil deed. In Judah’s words he realizes that the brothers who sold him are not the same people from 22 years earlier, and determines it is time to reveal himself. In yet another explanation, Joseph realizes at this moment that there is no way Judah will ever allow Benjamin to stay in Egypt, and if Joseph does not relent, the situation will unravel, even to blows and violence. Finally, this is the first time that Joseph hears that his father has spent the past twenty-two years mourning his lost son. Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, the last interaction between Joseph and his father was not exactly affectionate. When Joseph reports his dreams, Jacob is furious that Joseph would be brazen enough to imply that his father would bow down to him. Perhaps Jacob too felt that Joseph had gone too far and sent him off to the brothers whom he knew hated him. (This also explains why Joseph never contacted his father in all those years.) In truth, there is not one explanation, but a combination of contributing factors which motivate Joseph to reveal himself.
I would like to add another factor. In fact, Joseph cries seven times in Genesis, all in connection with his desire to connect to his family. I would like to focus on the second cry. Joseph gazed upon Benjamin for the first time after twenty-two years. We are told that his ‘compassion was aroused’ and that he goes to another room to cry. One could imagine why. Did the brothers treat Benjamin with the same abuse he received?
Nonetheless, unlike the third time when Joseph ‘no longer can restrain himself,’ using the verb lehit’apek, this time he simply washes his face, walks back out to his brothers, and the text is very clear that he does restrain himself, using the very same Hebrew verb (Genesis 43:30-31). Why? Perhaps because despite the brother’s regrets, they have not demonstrated as yet any commitment to this young boy, the only other child born to Rachel. As far as Joseph is concerned, Joseph taking Benjamin for a slave is an attempt to rescue this child from the abuse he experienced. This protective concern for his brother informs the next stage of the narrative, when Benjamin is accused of theft.
The midrash creates an elaborate story regarding the moment that Benjamin is caught with the goblet. Joseph confronts Benjamin, and Benjamin denies ever having stolen this goblet. Benjamin swears upon the name of his lost brother Joseph. “Just as I was not involved in his being thrown into a pit, nor stripping him of his tunic, nor selling him, nor dipping his tunic in blood, so too I did not conspire to steal this goblet.” In this recreation, Joseph not only learns that his brother mourns his loss but is completely aware of what has happened. Benjamin lives his life with the ‘secret’ that there was an unspeakable act of violation in the family. The midrash goes even deeper. Joseph asks, “How can I ensure you are swearing truthfully in the name of your brother?” Benjamin then catalogs the names of all his children to prove his faithfulness, all of whom refer to Joseph. Three will suffice. One child, Bela, is named because his brother was ‘swallowed up,’ nivla (the name and the verb share the same root). His son Becher is named after Joseph, who was the first born (bechor) of Rachel. A third child is named chupam, because Benjamin never saw the wedding (chuppah) of Joseph and Joseph never saw his wedding (chuppah). Another explanation for the name is that Joseph has been ‘covered’ (ch-p-p) unto this day, never to have been seen again! (Tanchuma VaYigash Buber 7).
Up to now, Joseph had only known the trauma of his own life and the moral distress experienced by his brothers. However, for the first time, Joseph was exposed to the generational trauma of the family, which not only impacts the perpetrators themselves, but the innocents as well. In the explicit pleading of Judah for his father, and the midrashic protestations of Benjamin, Joseph realized that he was not the only victim of the primal trauma, but the entire family. This trauma was not limited to one generation, either, but is now being transmitted to the next generation as well. The names of Benjamin’s children bear this out.
It is at this point that Joseph realizes that for him to continue the ruse, he not only becomes the victim of trauma, but the perpetrator of trauma as well. It is in this light that Joseph hears Judah’s story as well. It is not simply that Judah and the brothers have repented and taken responsibility; it is that they are trying in some way to heal the wreckage they created all those years ago. In vouching for the other brother, they attempt to recreate and heal what was broken.
It is at this stage that Joseph has a decision to make. He can become a conduit to consider a way forward and release himself from his own trauma, his brothers from the moral trauma, and Benjamin from survivor’s trauma. Alternatively, he can continue the ruse. However, the price for doing this will be not only the destruction of his brothers and his father, but himself as well. To continue his ruse means to falsely accuse a brother and enslave him, the very trauma for which he grapples with all these years. He can no longer restrain himself at this point not simply because he realizes that the brothers have repented, but because to continue the ruse he morally compromises himself. By falsely taking Benjamin as a slave, he will now inflict the same trauma he experienced on others.
We may or may not be convinced by Joseph’s words of comfort that the brothers should not feel bad for selling him, because this was part of a Divine plan which resulted in Joseph’s elevation to vizier over Egypt to provide sustenance to his brothers and the world. We can, however, appreciate Joseph’s attempts to heal not only his own heart, but the hearts of his family members. In truth, his attempts are only partly successful. Following the death of Jacob, the brothers concoct a story that Jacob upon his deathbed ordered Joseph not to seek vengeance. Clearly, despite Joseph’s reassurances and his commitment to move forward as a family, the brothers could never genuinely believe that Joseph would not have a change of heart. The primordial sin many years ago is never truly erased.
In our world, there are many people who secretly suffer with dark family secrets. They grapple with trauma committed by those who are supposed to nurture and protect. The complex and multifaceted story of Joseph teaches that healing oneself can take a lifetime and healing a family can take generations. This is the reason why in the rabbinic imagination, the primordial sin remains the sin of the sale of Joseph; the impacts of the sin continue to reverberate long after. The initial trauma does not end with the victim but is transmitted from generation to generation. The book of Genesis ends with Jacob and his family descending into Egypt, but like every family in history, they carry with them the history and the wounds. It is for each generation to try and be like Joseph, and to find a way to bring healing – for us, for them, and for future generations.