Parshat Miketz 2017
Imagine you’re Yosef, in Egypt. You’ve been away from home for 22 years. You’ve made it big time, numero dos in all of Egypt, you’ve been given a wife, have two kids, you’ve saved Egypt from famine and ruin, and now the ones who set all of this in motion by nearly killing you and ultimately selling you down the desert to Egypt have come before you, and they don’t recognize you. What do you do?
Revenge, right? Make them suffer. Wait a minute. You had dreams of them bowing down to you. Play that to the hilt. Or maybe test them. Yes, test them to see if they are still the same jealous evil people they were. Would they do the same thing again, say with Benjamin?
These are all logical options. But Dr. Brachi Elizur offers another – surprising – idea. Yosef was so stunned by their appearance before him that all his planned speeches and actions flew out the window, and he simply did whatever came to mind with no clear plan to follow.
That idea seems preposterous, at least at first sight. After all, this was Yosef, who with God’s help was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and who then – off the top of his head – detailed a seven-year plan to save the country. Could the appearance of ten men cause him such a loss of focus? In a word – yes.
In terms of his original family life he was still a 17-year-old kid whose last memory of that time was of being stripped of his coat, being thrown into the pit and hearing his brothers say “Let’s kill him. Or sell him to the Ishmaelites.” It still rankled him that his own brothers had hated him so much that they wanted to kill him –. What had he done? Told them a few dreams? So he tattled to their father. So what? And even worse, he hadn’t even realized the depth of their hatred.
Superimposed on that 17 year old was a 39 year old ruler, someone who now knew how to deal with people and even more importantly, to read them. He had been naïve and self-centered as a kid. Now he knew better and so his aim was – or might have been – to discover whether his brother Benjamin was in the same danger as he had been. In other words, had they changed?
Or we can say that no, he had his wits about him to the extent that he wanted to see how far he could go in realizing the dreams he had reported to them: would they and his father bow down to him too?
So I am not sure I subscribe to Dr. Elizur’s version. He was undoubtedly shocked and perhaps even befuddled for a while. And yes, his immediate reaction may have been the result of the flood of memories that was released by the sight of his brothers. But there is a logic to his behaviors and it follows several clear paths to one end.
Based on his words in the text (later) and on his behavior in other situations until this point, revenge was not his primary motivation. He repeatedly said that a divinity directed human actions and it was this divinity that had brought him to where he was, the second in command in the largest country in the area. So he actually should have bowed down to them and said, ‘Thank you brothers for selling me to Egypt. Thank you for taking away my old life and giving me a new one!’ But of course he wouldn’t do that, he couldn’t because he had a plan.
That plan seems a lot like revenge – it’s called measure for measure. They hadn’t killed him but they had made him feel helpless. He wouldn’t kill them – he’d make them feel helpless, and hopeless.
Although it was convoluted, the plan would draw together all of Yosef’s aims. First, use a Kafka trick. Create a totally illogical situation for which there is no exit. ‘You are spies.’ Go prove otherwise.
He uses their own words to create the one possible way out. Bring your other brother, Benjamin. And to make sure you return I’ll take Shimon as a deposit.
He plants the money they paid in their food sacks, another illogical event (from their point of view) that ups the ante. Now they can be arrested not only as spies but as scoundrels who don’t pay their bills.
Yaacov finally, unwillingly, despairingly, agrees to let Benjamin go to Egypt. And there Yosef pulls what seems to be the most illogical of steps. He favors Benjamin, giving him more than the other brothers in terms of food and clothing. Didn’t he learn anything from his own experience as the preferred child? He did.
To bring the test to a head, he created an opportunity for Benjamin to be taken away, as Yosef had been taken away. But they fought, as we will see in next week’s parsha, they fought tooth and nail to save him. They had changed. Yosef had changed. Everything should be hunky-dory with the brothers and father living in peace and harmony until 140 (Yaacov was already past 120).
Of course that doesn’t happen. Fairy tales are just that – as real and tangible as fairies. But Yosef accomplished all that he had set out to do: he got his revenge (indirect though it was), his brothers did bow down to him, he tested his brothers and found that they too had turned over a new leaf.
What we can’t see here is that Yosef’s actions on the national (not personal) level is setting the stage for the future enslavement of his family’s descendants, but that too will turn out to be the beginning of the formative story of our people’s redemption.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach