Who Is First?
Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
In the penultimate scene of Yaakov’s life, Yosef is summoned to his ailing father’s sick bed, and he brings his two sons with him. Previously, Yaakov had made Yosef promise to bury him in the Land of Israel. As his final days slip away, Yaakov stands poised to bless Yosef’s sons and grant them equal status among the tribes; Yaakov assigns Efraim and Menashe a place among his own sons, rather than among his grandsons. Their status as tribes effectively gives their father Yosef a "double portion," the birthright of the first-born son.
Were Yaakov’s parting interactions with Yosef merely additional expressions of the favoritism Yaakov had displayed toward Yosef in his youth? Why did Yaakov make his deathbed request for burial in the ancestral tomb specifically of Yosef, and not all of his sons? While we may say that it was Yosef, among all the sons, who had the power to fulfill this request, surely there would have been no harm in addressing all the sons as a group. And why were Yosef’s sons alone raised to a status far above all of Yaakov’s other grandchildren? Why were they, and by extension their father Yosef, favored with a double inheritance? Was this blessing a continuation of the preferential treatment that had sparked the brothers’ jealousy and led them to sell Yosef into slavery?
After announcing this double inheritance, Yaakov asks that Efraim and Menashe approach him and receive his blessing, but when they stand at their grandfather’s bedside, Yaakov appears to become confused:
And Yisrael saw Yosef’s sons, and (Yisrael) said, "Who are these?" (Bereishit 48:8)
There are several possible explanations for this confusion: In a subsequent verse, we are told that Yaakov (Yisrael) had limited eyesight (Bereishit 48:10). Perhaps he simply could not see, or was no longer able to see well enough to distinguish between them. A second possibility is that Yosef’s Egyptian-born sons looked strange and unfamiliar to Yaakov, due to their regal dress and carriage and their foreign upbringing. A third possibility, raised by Rashi, is that Yaakov’s lack of clarity was not a problem of eyesight but of clairvoyance: At that moment, Yaakov lost his prophetic vision. He became frightened, not confused, and his question was not aimed at clarifying the names or identities of his grandsons, but of their worthiness, their spiritual identity:
And Yisrael saw Yosef’s sons – he wished to bless them but the Divine Presence departed from him because he saw that from Efraim would be born the wicked kings Yerovam and Ahav, and from Menasheh Yehu and his sons (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 6). (Yisrael) asked, "Who are these?" – from where did these come, who are unfit for blessing? (Rashi, Bereishit 48:8)
According to Rashi, there was evil lurking in the future, something that Yaakov had never seen before, and this caused him to lose his ruach hakodesh and to question whether these sons of Yosef were in fact deserving of the blessing he was about to bestow on them. Yaakov saw evil in the future: Yerovam, Ahav, and Yehu, three wicked kings of Israel, were descendants of Yosef.
Yaakov could not imagine that Yosef would spawn such offspring. He had never seen any negative sides to his favorite son’s personality. Yosef was the golden child, Yaakov’s favorite. From a very young age, Yaakov knew that Yosef was destined for greatness. He dressed Yosef in the special, regal clothes, making it plain to anyone who saw him that Yosef was the anointed one.
For the most part, Yosef’s dreams were consonant with Yaakov’s expectations and aspirations: Yosef, the son of his beloved wife Rachel, was not like his other children, and his dreams of economic and political dominance simply echoed what Yaakov had already intuited: Yosef was born to lead. Yaakov’s other children, however, did not take kindly to the predictions of their own subservience. Their jealousy led to hatred, which nearly led to murder, ultimately resulted in the sale of Yosef.
From the moment, he retells his dreams to his father and brothers, Yosef’s dreams remain just below the surface of the narrative for the remainder of Bereishit. Thus, the brothers refer to what they believe to be Yosef’s delusions of grandeur as they plot to dispose of him:
"Then one said to the other, "Here comes that dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him;’ then we shall see what becomes of his dreams!" (Bereishit 37:19-20)
Many years later, when the brothers come searching for food, they do not imagine that Yosef’s dreams of power and economic superiority were not delusions but prophecies. They bow to Yosef, as his dream predicted they would; they beg him for food, as his dreams predicted they would. For Yosef, the dreams are a real and powerful element of his consciousness; he remembers the dreams from the moment his brothers re-enter his life:
Now Yosef was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, "Where do you come from?" And they said, "From the land of Canaan, to procure food." For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Yosef said to them, "You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness." (Bereishit 42:6-9)
In an exchange dripping with delicious irony, the brothers bow to the powerful supplier of food, yet they do not know that is their long-lost, nearly- murdered brother, whom they had kidnapped and sold. Yosef alone remembers the dreams, and the dreams have come true. Yet it seems almost like the famous philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears... Can we say that the brothers have truly bowed to Yosef if they do not know who he is? Must they actually experience and internalize their subservience to their brother, or acknowledge Yosef’s greatness, for the dreams to be fulfilled?
Setting this question aside for the moment, we might remind ourselves that the dreams are a subtext, as we have noted, and not the central theme of the tension that builds in the course of their encounter. The larger issue seems to be that Yosef is gauging his brothers’ morality: Have they remained the same jealous, devious bunch? Is his younger brother Binyamin safe? Is his father still alive? Have they been transformed by the years of separation? Do they regret how they treated him? Is there still a chance for reconciliation?
From the moment Yosef heard Pharaoh’s dreams, he knew that his brothers would arrive – sooner rather than later. He also knew that as soon as they arrived, they would bow – but there was much more that he did not know. And so, when they do arrive, and when they bow to him, oblivious to his true identity, Yosef watches and listens carefully. He puts them through a series of rigorous tests in order to answer his own questions, and in the end the brothers – particularly Yehuda – pass the test: Yehuda is prepared to sacrifice himself and become a slave so that Binyamin can be free. Yosef, who has first-hand insight as to the physical and emotional price this entails, is moved; Yehuda’s extraordinary gesture allows Yosef to bring the charade to an end, and to reveal his identity.
The real question is, what’s next? Essentially, only Yosef can answer this question; after all, he holds all the cards. Yosef is in charge – not only of Egypt, and of the fate of his brothers, but also of the type of reconciliation, if any, they can expect, and the new rules of engagement.
There are three obvious possibilities:
First: Yosef punishes his brothers. He recalls everything he went through because of them – the humiliation, slavery, mortal danger, and estrangement from his beloved father. As we have already noted, the former apprentice to the chief executioner of Egypt surely had the knowledge, power and means to subject his brothers to unimaginable pain. Alternatively, sentencing them to live out their lives as slaves might have been the just and equitable punishment for their perfidy. Nonetheless, Yosef has no thoughts of revenge.
Second: Yosef wipes the slate clean, expunges the past, and starts from scratch, building a new relationship with his now-transformed brothers, on equal footing with them at last. This approach would arguably go a long way toward excising the cancerous feelings of jealousy and hatred which are in danger of growing even stronger than they had been, festering and metastasizing on the fertile ground of Yosef’s success.
Yosef chooses a third path: While he does not take revenge, he does not seek equality. An analysis of the language of the verses that describe their relationship reveals his plan, his thoughts – and his dreams for the future.
Yosef said to his brothers, "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so shaken were they on account of him. (Bereishit 45:3)
Yosef speaks, and the text stresses that it is to his brothers that he addresses himself. This very loaded term gives us hope for fraternity and brotherhood, but that hope quickly disappears: Yosef asks, "Is my father still alive?" Had he wished for reconciliation, he would surely have included them: "Is our father still alive?"
The brothers are in shock; they are speechless. Yosef tries, once again, to engage them. There are many things he can say to assure them of his identity, and he urges them to come close – but then he chooses to remind them of the most painful parts of their relationship, using words that must have cut like the jagged edge of a knife:
Then Yosef said to his brothers, "Please, come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am your brother Yosef, whom you sold into Egypt. (Bereishit 45:4)
Yosef assures them he is, in fact, their brother, that he has returned from the grave they dug for him in their minds; he is the same Yosef they had sold all those years ago. Once again, Yosef creates a moment of closeness – "I am Yosef your brother" – but quickly follows with a crushing dose of blunt truth – "whom you sold into [slavery in] Egypt." Had he sought reconciliation, there were so many other words he could have used to convince them of his identity. But Yosef continues, and a deviousness emerges:
Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me to this place; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Bereishit 45:5-8)
With an artfully crafted explanation that displays his brilliance, Yosef praises God for bringing him to Egypt and to his lofty position, and at the same time exonerates his brothers, removing them completely from the narrative. On the one hand, he explains that God’s master-plan brought him to Egypt and secured him in a position of unimaginable power. Many lives, including their own, will be saved. But lest they receive any credit, even incidental credit, for anything good that results from Yosef rise to power, he stresses that this was all the work of God. The sub-text is extraordinary: Yosef knew, from the start, that he would achieve greatness. He tried to tell them, to share his worldview, but they scorned him and scoffed at his predictions. They were so far off the mark, he tells them, that they cannot take any credit whatsoever for the fortuitous outcome, because they were oblivious to the truth all along. They were nothing more than pawns, marionettes whose strings were pulled by the master of the Divine drama that catapulted Yosef to the top. He alone, he tells them in his just-subtle enough speech, has always been the star of the show. He has always been the main character; they are merely "extras" in a cast of thousands. Yosef gives God all the credit; he wants them to understand that God is on his side.
Yosef’s speech is stunning. These are not the words of a man seeking peace, love, fraternity, or reconciliation. The speech is self-serving from start to finish, bordering on narcissistic, and these same tropes are echoed in his instructions for breaking the news to his father that he is alive:
"Now, hurry back to my father and say to him: ‘Thus says your son Yosef, ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay. You will dwell in the region of Goshen, where you will be near me – you and your children and your grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all that is yours. There I will provide for you; – for there are yet five years of famine to come – that you and your household and all that is yours may not suffer want.’ You can see for yourselves, and my brother Binyamin for himself, that it is indeed I who am speaking to you. And you must tell my father everything about my high station in Egypt and all that you have seen; and bring my father here with all speed." (Bereishit 45:9-13)
Yosef wants his father to know that God has placed him as leader and lord over Egypt; again, he refers to his father, not their (collective) father, and his own personal glory, power, and honor. The benevolent Yosef lets it be known that he will care for them all, provide them with food, homes, and all their other needs – yet his benevolence comes at a price. He infantilizes his brothers by caring for them, creating total dependence on his good graces rather than employing them in meaningful, productive positions. His benevolence feeds and strengthens his dreams; the reality he creates surpasses even his dreams.
What do the brothers hear? How do they interpret his kindness? Apparently, they see what they had always seen: Yosef’s narcissism. Even when Yosef embraces them and cries on the shoulders of each of his brothers, only Binyamin reciprocates; the other brothers stand stone cold, either in shock or in disgust. They are convinced that they had been right about Yosef from the start.
With that he embraced his brother Binyamin around the neck and wept, and Binyamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him. (Bereishit 45:14-15)
Yosef shares with his brothers a state secret, there would be five more years of drought and hunger. Yosef prides himself into seeing into the future, and shares with his brothers, they should tell Yaakov who should hurry down.
As the brothers leave, Yosef shows favoritism to his full brother Binyamin, mistakes from the past will not be corrected, they will be institutionalized, for Yosef the story has a happy ending. He has been vindicated, and now all his brothers know it. The tree which fell in the forest could now be heard loud and clear.
To each of them, moreover, he gave a change of clothing; but to Binyamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing. And to his father he sent the following: ten donkeys laden with the best things of Egypt, and ten she-asses laden with grain, bread, and provisions for his father on the journey. As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, "Do not be quarrelsome on the way." (Bereishit 45:22-24)
Upon returning to Yaakov, the brothers share the news in more subdued tones: Yosef is alive, and he rules over Egypt. After overcoming his initial disbelief, Yaakov comes back to life, and his spirit of prophecy returns.
They went up from Egypt and came to their father Yaakov in the land of Canaan. And they told him, "Yosef is still alive, and he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt." His heart went numb, for he did not believe them. But when they recounted all that Yosef had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived. "Enough!" said Yisrael. "My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die." (Bereishit 45:25-28)
While Yosef had his dreams which indeed came true, Yaakov armed with prophecy, sees further into the future:
So Yisrael set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer Sheva, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. God called to Yisrael in a vision by night: "Yaakov! Yaakov!" He answered, "I am here." And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Yosef’s hand shall close your eyes." (Bereishit 46:1-4)
Yaakov has been told they will become a numerous people during this sojourn; clearly, this vision extends well beyond five years into the future that Yosef is able to see. Yaakov understands that this exile will continue for hundreds of years. He knows that the fruition of the covenant God made with Avraham has begun; slavery and affliction will soon follow. Yosef can amuse himself with his power, but Yaakov knows it is temporary. Although Yaakov lives out his years in Egypt, reunited with the son he always loved, but he is nonetheless preoccupied with the future.
Now, we return to the deathbed scene. Yaakov is taken aback; he sees something coming, something evil that emerges from Yosef, something he had never seen before: Yosef’s descendants will be self-centered, narcissistic leaders who will lead the nation astray. In shock, Yaakov asks, "Who are these people?" – even though the people standing at his bedside are Yosef’s sons Efraim and Menashe, whom we have every reason to believe were fine, upstanding young men. Yaakov feels his prophetic vision slipping away in the face of something sinister, and he is shocked and alarmed: This is a side of Yosef he had never seen – but perhaps should have seen. Our sages point out Yosef’s immaturity and narcissism from a very early stage in his life story: And Israel saw the sons of Joseph, and he said: "Who are these?" This verse seems to contradict the statement a few verses later that "the eyes of Israel were dim from age, so that he could not see". What this verse really means, however, is that he saw through the Holy Spirit those later descendants of Joseph, Jeroboam and his fraternity. Jeroboam made two golden calves and said: These are thy gods, O Israel (1 Kings 12:28). Hence Israel now said, "Who are these?" That is, "Who is he that will one day say these to idols?" From this passage, we learn that the righteous see into the distant future and God crowns them with His own crown. (Zohar, Bereishit, 227b)
This is the line of Yaakov: At seventeen years of age, Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers, and he was a lad (naar) to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Yosef brought bad reports of them to their father. (Bereishit 37:2)
...and he was a lad (naar) – His actions were childish: he dressed his hair, he touched up his eyes so that he should appear goodlooking. (Rashi, Bereishit 37:2, based on Bereishit Rabbah 84:7)
He left all that he had in Yosef’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Yosef was well built and handsome. (Bereishit 39:6)
And Yosef was well built and handsome – as soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "Your father is mourning and you curl your hair! I will let a bear loose against you" (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 8). Immediately... (Rashi Bereishit 39:6)
The Rabbis see something that evades Yaakov’s detection, something selfabsorbed in Yosef’s personality. Yosef is certain that he is destined to lead, and he is attracted to the trappings of leadership.
In Yosef’s descendants, specifically the kings cited above, this dysfunction morphs into a pathological spiritual sickness. Yerovam thinks it wise to repeat the greatest offense committed by his ancestors, and builds not one but two golden calves. He stations guards at the border crossings to prevent Jews from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Yerovam is willing to lead an entire generation astray just to assure his exalted position.
In one of the most extreme expressions of this illness, the rabbis tell of a conversation between God and Yerovam:
"And after this matter, Yerovam did not repent from his evil ways" (I Kings 13:33). What does "after" refer to? Rabbi Abba says: After the Holy One, Blessed be He, grabbed Yerovam by his garment, and said to him: Repent, and you and I and the son of Yishai will stroll together in the Garden of Eden. (Yerovam) said to Him: Who will be in the lead? (God) said to (Yerovam): The son of Yishai will be in the lead. (Yerovam) said: If so, I am not interested. (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 102a)
This passage expresses the almost unimaginable, unmitigated gall of Yerovam: God "grabbed Yerovam by his garment" – a phrase that directly links Yerovam with his forefather Yosef. He is offered a stroll with God and the Messiah in the Garden of Eden, the most exclusive journey (pilgrimage?) in the most exclusive, exalted company – but his first question is, "Who is first?" Who will take the lead? Can Yerovam have imagined that God Himself would take a back seat to a mortal king? God seems to go along, hoping to teach Yerovam a lesson in humility, and does not put Himself in the lead, but when Yerovam hears that he himself will not be the star of the show – he rejects God!
This is the side of Yosef the brothers always saw. They sensed that his first, perhaps his only concern, was self-aggrandizement. And yet, Yosef’s clothes were left behind when he escaped from the clutches of Mrs. Potifar, while Yerovam’s garments are torn from him as he escapes the grasp of God – and there, in a nutshell, lies the complexity of Yosef. Yosef managed to suppress the negative aspects of his personality; Yerovam did not. But the brothers could not see this. When they looked at Yosef, they saw only the vainglorious, self-righteous, pretentious side of his personality. While Yaakov was blind to Yosef’s darker side, the brothers were blind to the positive side. They knew nothing about Yosef’s spiritual struggles and victories. They knew nothing of the temptations he faced and overcame. They did not hear him speak about God to all those around him, even at his own peril. They did not know that he took no personal credit for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and saving Egypt. They did not know how truly great he was. And so, even when he delivers a speech and makes a commitment to set aside the past and care for them and their families, they hear the "B side" of the record: Yosef "forgives" them "for nothing;" he intimates that they were unimportant details in the story. Once again, they see and the parts of his personality they had always hated. Even worse, they were afraid of him:
Yosef returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father. When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, they said, "What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!" So they sent this message to Yosef, "Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father." And Yosef was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, "We are prepared to be your slaves." But Yosef said to them, "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children." Thus, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Bereishit 50:14-21)
Despite living as a reunited family for seventeen years, the brothers were far from convinced that this was the true Yosef. They were convinced that the d.tente achieved was only due to their father’s presence. Now, with Yaakov dead and buried, Yosef would take his "pound of flesh" and kill them all. Yosef for his part is shocked by their mistrust, hurt by the knowledge that they could even suspect him of such thoughts. He repeats the speech he had given when he first revealed his identity, and again exonerates them, explaining that this was God’s will.
If Yosef’s goal was rapprochement, he failed; if, however, his goal was to demonstrate his superiority, he was successful.
Yosef remains a complex character. He achieved dizzying power, unimaginable success. He created a system of social welfare in the depths of the dark ages by applying the teachings of Avraham on a national scale: Whereas Avraham opened his tent to tend to those in need, Yosef anticipated and responded to the needs of an empire, all the while remaining true to the faith of Avraham, he had learned from his fathers, never losing sight of the hand of God that made his accomplishments possible.
Is this split – in Yosef’s personality, and between Yosef and his brothers – ever healed? The final chapter of Yosef’s life story is one of true reconciliation:
Yosef said to his brothers, "I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov." So Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." Yosef died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Bereishit 50:24-26)
On his deathbed, in his final words to his brothers, Yosef begs them to promise that they will take his remains with them when they leave Egypt; he longs to be a part of the family, and not a part of the Egyptian pantheon. At last, there is peace – not only because the man they fear is on death’s door, but because a real change has occurred. If we listen carefully, as the brothers most certainly did, we hear a different Yosef. Yosef finally understood what his father Yaakov had known before he came to Egypt; this would not be a five-year visit to wait out the famine. This is not the story of Yosef. This is the start of a long, difficult exile. Yosef’s dreams are no longer the point; history has moved on. They are now all characters in the dreams and visions of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. The Children of Israel – Yosef’s included, will be in Egypt for a very long time – but God will redeem them, and when He does, Yosef wants to be a part of it. He wants to leave with his brothers – the brothers who may never have loved him, who certainly never displayed love for him; the brothers for whom he had cared for the past seventy years.
Now, something has changed: Yosef, who had always been so brash, so confident, was suddenly vulnerable. For the first time, he needed them – not as pawns or marionettes in his show, but as brothers. When he acknowledges that, their relationship changes: At last, they are equals. They promise Yosef that they will see that his remains are returned home. And the moment they make this vow, the family finally becomes whole. They are brothers at last, equals, the founders of one nation.
Pharaoh would forget Yosef, but his brothers, who finally felt like brothers, would never forget Yosef. And the brothers who sold him into slavery would bring him back home, as brothers, forever, at last.
Chazak chazak vnitchazek!
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
1. Rashbam, Bereishit 48:8.
2. Malbim, Bereishit 48:8.
3. The text (Bereishit 37:3) stresses that Yisrael loved Yosef because he was a "ben zekunim" which is understood by Rashi as a clever son. The name Yisrael, tends to be used on a more national as opposed to personal level. This would indicate that Yaakov/Yisrael thought that on objective terms he favored Yosef. Later in the narrative, the brothers acknowledge that Yosef was loved by Yaakov.
4. Many debate the extent of fulfillment of the dreams, only ten and not eleven bowed, a brother was missing, their father (and Yosef’s mother) were missing. Nonetheless in terms of substance of the dreams, their sheaves bowing to his sheaves, and the stars bowing to him – represent Yosef supplying food specifically, and his power generally, these elements did come true.
5. Parashat Vayigash 5778 "Emotional Truth: Becoming Brothers Once Again" http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2017/12/parashat-vayigash-5778-emotional-truth.html
6. See comments of Radak to Bereishit 46:34, Yosef did not want his brothers to receive government positions. Presumably Paroh would adduce if having one "Yosef" work for him changed the economy of Egypt – imagine what a team of twelves "Yosefs"could do.
7. See my essay "Who Are These": http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48937092.html, specifically note the Zohar cited which links the question of Yaakov: "Who are these" mi eleh, with the declaration made when the Golden Calf in the desert and the pair of golden calves by Yerovam were constructed and worshiped. ("these are your gods Israel" – eleh alohecha Yisrael).
8 See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik "Vision and Leadership – Reflection on Joseph and Moses" Toras HoRav Foundation, Ktav 2013, page 28ff.