We have recently completed the lengthy account of Yosef and his brothers. The interaction of Yosef with his brothers is one of the most perplexing incidents in the Torah, a story that has puzzled generations of readers for thousands of years. Why does Yosef conceal his true identity? Why didn’t Yosef tell his father that he was in Egypt earlier?
Even if we accept the view of Abarbanel that Yosef had no means of informing his father while he was a slave and could not do so even after he ascended to political power lest he be accused of disloyalty to Egypt, how do we explain the demand that his brothers bring Binyamin to him to establish their innocence? Why the planting of a false accusation that Binyamin is a thief, the imposition of a sentence (that Binyamin remain as a slave) that he knew, would devastate Yaakov and perhaps kill him? Are we chas v’shalomsimply dealing with a victim who is now in a position to exact revenge? And why would he want to exact vengeance on his father?
Ramban states that Yosef perceived his dreams as a Divine mandate which it was his duty to fulfill. He dreamt that all eleven stars would bow to him and thus it was essential that Binyamin too come down and acknowledge him as ruler. Moreover, since Yosef also dreamt that the sun and moon would bow down, Yosef desired that even Yaakov descend to Mitzraim and plead for mercy, making Binyamin’s imprisonment necessary. Indeed, it is only Yosef’s inability to contain himself that prevented this from happening.
Many commentators question Ramban’s view. After all, is it Yosef’s job to manipulate reality through fraud or misrepresentation in order to achieve his dream? Do the ends justify the means? Isn’t it G’d’s job to be sure that His prophecies be fulfilled?
One possible explanation may be that Yosef well understood that his descent to Mitzraim was a prelude to the servitude and enslavement of the Jewish people that was foretold to Abraham in the covenant of the parts. (Yaakov later understood this as well which is why he was so fearful of leaving Eretz Canaan). As such, it was his Divinely ordained mission to pave the way for his brethren by giving them the tools to survive the galut, to retain faith in Hashem in a hostile decadent environment and not to assimilate. Every step in his life was designed to demonstrate to his brothers and to all Jews that “Ani Yosef” – one can still be a Yosef faithful to the Torah and his people whether one is at the pinnacle of greatness or the nadir of persecution and enslavement for indeed Yosef embodied both extremes. [Commentators say this is why we bless our children on Friday night to be like “Ephraim” and “Menashe” as they exemplify the ability to remain faithful to G-d even in a hostile, galut environment with few if any role models].
The Ari teaches us, however, that over the 210 years of the Egyptian exile, we rapidly descended to the 49th level of impurity. (Had we descended to Level 50, we would have been irredeemable which is why Hakadosh Boruch Hu took us out 190 years earlier than had been predicted.) Most of the Jews were idolaters, did not practice circumcision, and were generally “naked and bare” from any and all mitzvot. Their sole merit consisted in their sense of empathy, concern, andachdut for each other (keeping their Jewish names, distinct clothing, not intermarrying, not informing on each other) – bonds that we might pejoratively term as ethnic, cultural, and emotional rather than spiritual or religious. Although these bonds are not sufficient, they are a necessary start. As Chazal teach, and as the Rav z.t.l. reiterated and developed in many magnificent ways, there can be no redemption of the individual except to the extent he identifies with the future and destiny of K’llal Yisrael.
And yet in their hatred and animosity of Yosef, the brothers demonstrated exactly the opposite capacity. If our lives are consumed with hatred, envy, and polarization, how could we survive as a people at all, particularly in a hostile galut? As such, it was indeed Yosef’s Divinely ordained mission to insure that the hatred and rift that resulted in his sale had been healed. That the children of Leah were not only protective of the last surviving (so it was thought) child of Rachel but were willing to give up their lives and freedom for his safe return. They have come full circle – sinat chinam(irrational hatred) has turned into ahavat chinam(boundless love) and, in the tradition of Hashem providing the refuah (cure) before the makkah (illness), the seeds of redemption have been firmly planted even before the exile commenced.
The Vilna Gaon teaches us that the Egyptian exile is the prototype for all future exiles. Just as unity, community and solidarity were the necessary prerequisites for our redemption then, so will it be for the future. May we merit to rise to the challenge.