> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Of Spies and Thieves

Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


After a series of strange negotiations and reversals of fortunes, the brothers of Yosef have procured food, and are finally united and on their way home to their father. The performance of what they had first thought to be a simple task - buying food - turned out to be impossibly difficult. It resulted in threats, arrests, incarceration and what seemed at the outset as unimaginable horror. But this is all behind them - they are free, mission accomplished. Shimon is with them, Binyamin is with them, once again they are united; they are whole. At least they think they are united. There is one more brother who is still unaccounted for. He is apparently not on their minds, and soon the illusion of a peaceful trip home, with all their trials and tribulations behind them, will be shattered - with a vengeance.

Yosef sends off a messenger with the following instructions:

And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man's money in his sack's mouth. And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack's mouth of the youngest, and his grain money. And he did as Yosef had spoken. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away, they and their asses. And when they were gone out of the city, and not yet far off, Yosef said to his steward, Arise, follow after the men; and when you do overtake them, say to them, Why have you repaid evil for good? Is not this the cup from which my lord drinks, and whereby indeed he divines? You have done evil in so doing. And he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words. (Bereishit 44:1-6)


* * *



The brothers reply with self-righteous indignation: they are innocent and can prove it from their previous behavior.

And they said to him, Why did my lord say these words? God forbid that your servants should do such a thing; behold, the money, which we found in our sacks' mouths, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan; how then should we steal from your lord's house silver or gold? (Bereishit 44:7-8)

Their strategy is strange. Why, in an attempt to prove their innocence, would they dredge up a previous charge of larceny against them? They run the risk of actually reinforcing the suspicions against them: In light of this latest episode, the previous charge could now be re-opened and reinterpreted, and their guilt established. They note that they had returned the money that was found in their grain-sacks when they returned home, yet this proves nothing: The fact that they returned the money may have been an act of pragmatism, enabling them to purchase more food despite having earlier left their account in arrears.

The brothers continue to defend themselves, but the next line of reasoning, while noble and dramatic, might easily bear dire consequences.

If any of your servants is found to have it, let him die, and we also will be my lord's slaves. (Bereishit 44:9)

Quite remarkably, they make the most bizarre offer: Death to the perpetrator, enslavement for the rest - extreme punishment for the guilty and the innocent alike. The counter-offer is equally strange: While the emissary appears to accept their offer, he actually downgrades the punishments. The death sentence is removed from the table, the innocent will go free, and only the guilty party will be enslaved:

And he said, Now also let it be according to your words; he with whom it is found shall be my servant; and you shall be blameless. Then each of them quickly took down his sack to the ground, and each of them opened his sack. And he searched, and began at the eldest, and ended at the youngest; and the cup was found in Binyamin's sack. Then they tore their clothes, and each of them loaded his ass, and returned to the city. And Yehuda and his brothers came to Yosef's house; for he was yet there; and they fell before him on the ground. And Yosef said to them, What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that such a man as I can certainly divine? And Yehuda said, What shall we say to my lord, what shall we speak, or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord's servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (Bereishit 44:10-16)

When the cup is found in the sack of Binyamin, again the brothers increase the punishment. Rather than punishment for the "guilty party" alone, as the steward had suggested, the brothers now increase the punishment and suggest that all of them become slaves. They are rebuffed: Yosef gives them a lesson in morality, explaining that only the guilty should suffer. In words that echo his great-grandfather Avraham, he says it is unjust for the innocent to be punished with the wicked.

And he said, God forbid that I should do so; but the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my servant; and as for you, go up in peace to your father. (Bereishit 44:17)

Yehuda then delivers a soliloquy, recounting history and finally offering his own imprisonment, instead of Binyamin. It would seem that Yehuda could have arrived at this result with much less fuss had he actually wanted it: he could have taken the blame for stealing the goblet from the moment it was discovered, thereby exonerating Binyamin. Yehuda was surely a more likely culprit, having been present at both episodes, while Binyamin was only present at the second meeting.

Then Yehuda came near to him, and said, Oh my lord, let your servant, I beg you, speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant; for you are as Pharaoh.... Now therefore, I beg you, let your servant remain, instead of the lad, a slave to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that shall come on my father. (Bereishit 44:18, 33-34)


* * *



The entire episode seems like a wonderful lesson in how not to negotiate. We might better understand the brothers' conduct in this scene if we are sensitive to their spiritual or religious needs: They are not negotiating, they are seeking punishment. They are consumed with feelings of guilt for a crime they committed many years ago - the sale of Yosef. It is this guilt they express. Ironically, the one brother not involved in any way with that earlier crime is Binyamin, which makes his entanglement in this episode confusing. Be that as it may, the brothers have perpetrated a crime and are now seeking punishment. They are prepared to be enslaved.

Yehuda's words lead Yosef to reveal his identity, bringing the story to its bittersweet conclusion. The family is reunited, but in Egypt, where slavery will soon begin. Moreover, their guilt in the sale of Yosef hovers over the brothers for the rest of their days.


* * *



This interaction is not the first strange, nearly-incomprehensible dialogue between Yosef and his brothers. When they meet after many years of separation, Yosef recognizes them immediately, but they see only an aristocratic Egyptian. The conversation is obscure:

And Yosef saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. And Yosef knew his brothers, but they did not know him. And Yosef remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come. And they said to him, No, my lord, your servants came to buy food. We are all one man's sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies.12. And he said to them, No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come. (Bereishit 42:7-12)

We gather that Yosef was less than overjoyed to see the people who had so mistreated him. He feigns ignorance of their identity and, remembering his dreams, accuses them of being spies. Of course, they deny the charge, yet he repeats it. He insists that in fact the brothers are spies. They interject with what seems like irrelevant information and explain that they are all brothers.

And they said, Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is absent. And Yosef said to them, That is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies. (Bereishit 42)

Yosef counters that this is exactly what he meant. The give and take is strange: What is the proper response to charges of this nature? The exchange is unclear. If we succeed in deciphering this passage, we may then gain insight into Yosef's thoughts, his motivation, his plan.


* * *



The easiest explanation is that in fact none of the dialogue makes sense: Yosef has decided to take revenge, and their attempts to defend or explain themselves are futile. Whatever they would say would be useless in the face of Yosef's power to entrap them. As readers, then, we should not look for deeper meaning in the dialogue.

Yet everything we know from the preceding narrative, everything we have learned about Yosef's personality, indicates that he is neither impetuous nor whimsical. He is a visionary; he considers long-term consequences and implications. When he resists the seductive advances of his master's wife, conquering momentary passion, he displays self-restraint that we might expect to see again in this new scenario. And when he meets Pharoh, he does not merely explain the monarch's dreams, he proceeds to formulate a fourteen-year economic plan, which will rescue the Egyptian economy from drought and recession.

Here, too, when he confronts his brothers, Yosef has a plan. Like a master chess player, he has already thought through all of his moves, their counter moves and his end-game.2

Accusing the brothers of espionage may have been a preventive strike: Yosef is aware that his rags-to-riches story is well known in Egypt, and he has thought of the only way of preventing his brothers from hearing the details of his miraculous ascent to power. Once he has accused them of being spies, Yosef effectively prevents his brothers from asking the Egyptians, "Who is this Zafnat Paneach? Where did he come from?" Once they have been charged with spying, such inquiries would effectively prove them guilty, resulting in imprisonment or death. Outflanked, the brothers must now proceed in silence; they cannot ask probing questions about their inquisitioner.

There may be another reason Yosef chooses this particular charge with which to accuse the brothers, and the answer is almost too obvious. When he accuses them of being spies, he inwardly wants them to admit that they are in fact looking for something - or more precisely, for someone: their brother Yosef. Perhaps what Yosef wants more than anything is to hear these words from his brothers: They are searching for him, just as, so many years earlier, when Yosef met an anonymous man in the field who asked him what he was looking for, Yosef responded, "I seek my brothers". The words echo and haunt us. Despite all the enmity, jealousy and hatred, ultimately Yosef is only seeking out his brothers. He hopes that his brothers will ask the anonymous, unfamiliar man who stands before them, "Have you seen our brother?"

How would the story have ended if the brothers had confided in Zafnat Paneach: "Yes, long ago we had a twelfth brother, who was last seen when he was taken down to Egypt as a slave. Our elderly father thinks that he is dead. We were young and impetuous, and didn't consider the long term implications of our actions. We didn't realize that we would break our father's heart. We didn't consider the moral and ethical considerations. Now we are indeed searching - not spying. We are looking for something precious, someone whose value we failed to appreciate when he was in our midst. It is our brother we seek."

Had the brothers admitted to being "spies", would the charade have continued?

Yosef seems to lead them precisely to this point when he says:

...and one is absent.And Yosef said to them, That (of He) is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies; (Bereishit 42:13-14)

The accusation of being spies is specifically in regard to the one missing brother! He is telling them, perhaps inwardly pleading with them; "You are looking for your lost brother." We can image Yosef, his heart racing, hoping, praying, that it is true that the brothers are looking for him. But they shatter that sweet illusion and deny any spying. Therefore, Yosef sets an alternative plan in motion: He seeks to jar their memories. He will force them to remember what they have buried away deep in their collective memories. He will remind them that there was once a twelfth brother, that his name was Yosef - and that Yosef is still looking for his brothers.

So, the alternative plan begins: They are all arrested and thrown into prison. Yosef forces them to relive his own experience, in an attempt to jolt them into recognition. Interestingly, various words are used to describe the imprisonment of Yosef and now the brothers. All of these are connected to the "original sin" of the sale of Yosef, who is cast into a pit by his brothers before he is sold. Later, when Yosef tells his life story to a fellow prisoner, he describes his imprisonment "in the pit", referring either to the Egyptian prison in which they are languishing, or perhaps the pit into which his brothers cast him - or both (Bereishit 40:15). When he is released from prison and brought before Pharoh, the narrative describes his release "from the pit" (Bereishit 41:14). Linguistically, thematically, and apparently emotionally, Yosef's prison experience is linked with his initial indignity - when he was thrown into the pit by his brothers. The brothers' prison experience, though engineered by Yosef to hark back to his own trauma, is described in different terms. They are placed under guard, but not in the pit.

A few days in prison brings the brothers to a very raw emotional place. Their guilt rises from the subconscious to the forefront of their consciousness, and the conversation finally turns to Yosef:

And they said one to another, We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuven answered them, saying, Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required. (Bereishit 42:21-2)

They remember, and they acknowledge that punishment is due. They accept their guilt and believe they should be punished. Yet they take no action to rectify the situation. They do not make any inquiries regarding Yosef's fate or whereabouts. They do not admit their wrongdoing to Yaakov.

When all but Shimon are released and their money is returned to their bags, they have no inkling that an additional encounter is being engineered.


* * *



Eventually, the brothers return to Egypt. The money which they discover in their sacks is returned, and more provisions are purchased. A joyous reunion takes place with their brother who has been absent because he was thrown into prison - Shimon. Yosef watches the brothers rejoice in their regained unity, as they celebrate their family being "whole" again. Of course, there is still one brother missing, one brother unaccounted for, one brother who does not even seem to be missed: Yosef.

They are invited to eat. The last time Yosef saw, or to be more precise, heard his brothers eating was when he was in the pit: They had callously dined while Yosef, stripped of his coat, cried out to them from the pit. Now they eat together, all twelve brothers. Yosef yearns for their companionship, yet they acknowledge neither his absence - nor his presence. Can they still hear his cries? Does it haunt them? Late at night when they try to sleep do they still hear Yosef screaming? Does the image of his being carried away still fill their minds - or is Yosef forgotten?

As far as the brothers are concerned, they are dining with Egyptian royalty, and apparently they get carried away, and allow themselves to eat and drink, and they become inebriated.3 They have much to celebrate: Their family is whole once again. They are about to go home. They looked forward to putting this entire episode behind them, forgetting all the unpleasantness - just as they forgot Yosef.

Their bags are packed and their money is returned, and Yosef's goblet surreptitiously placed in the bag of Binyamin. Yosef's master plan requires that one more episode be relived.

They are on their way, when they are accosted on the road. Their bags are searched, and they are made to feel vulnerable and humiliated. This happened once before, years earlier, when they were young, when they were still one family:

And it was told to Lavan on the third day that Yaakov had fled. And he took his brothers with him, and pursued him seven days' journey; and they overtook him at Mount Gilead... And Lavan went into Yaakov's tent, and into Leah's tent, and into the two maidservants' tents; but he did not find them. Then he went out from Leah's tent, and entered into Rachel's tent. Now Rachel had taken the teraphim, and put them in the camel's saddle, and sat upon them. And Lavan searched all the tent, but did not find them. (Bereishit 31:22-23, 33-34)

When Lavan catches up with Yaakov, he has a long litany of complaints, including:

And now that you are surely gone, because you so long for your father's house, why have you stolen my gods? (Bereishit 31:30)

Accused of a crime of which he knows of he is innocent, Yaakov makes an unfortunate pronouncement: Death to the culprit!

With whom you will find your gods, let him not live. Before our brothers point out what I have of yours, and take it with you. For Yaakov did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (Bereishit 31:32)

Years later, when the brothers recommend a death sentence for the culprit, they are mimicking their father's response to a similar situation: Yaakov had responded to the theft of Lavan's idols,4 and the cup which they have been accused of stealing, is reported to be used for "divination." 5

The brothers are not negotiating. They are under extreme pressure, and they revert back to a time when they were frightened and vulnerable. They recall their father's reaction, and respond likewise.

Later, when Yehuda speaks up, he, too, imitates his father's response to that earlier scene:

And Yaakov was angry, and chided Lavan; and Yaakov answered and said to Lavan, What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? (Bereishit 31:36)

Yosef is trying to jar their memories, and he takes them back to the most traumatic episode of their childhood: They are hastily removed from their grandfather's home, the only home they know. They will soon face the threat of Esav and his henchman. Between these two pressure points, they are chased down on the road, stopped and searched. And they respond exactly as their father did: "Let the thief be put to death."

Yosef throws it back in their faces. His response seems to shout: "If you identify with your father so completely, so automatically, that you mimic his words, why do you treat him as you do? Why have you let him mourn all these years? If you want to be like your father, why don't you reach out to your estranged brother as he reached out to Esav? Why, in your minds, is Yosef dead and forgotten?"

Time after time, bit by bit, in one subtle act after another, Yosef works on their memory. He replicates harsh experiences in order to achieve catharsis. As a therapist working with a patient, Yosef forces them to revisit some of the most horrific episodes of their lives, with one goal: to remind them, to wake them up - "Haven't you forgotten something? Aren't you looking for someone? Aren't you really spies?"

Only when Yehuda presses on and finally speaks of his father's pain and loneliness, does Yosef relent.

And your servant my father said to us, You know that my wife bore me two sons; and the one went out from me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since; and if you take this (son) from me as well, and harm befall him, you shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol. Now therefore when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's life; it shall come to pass, when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die; and your servants shall bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For I, your servant, am collateral for the lad to my father, saying, If I bring him not to you, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I beg you, let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest perhaps I see the evil that shall come on my father. (Bereishit 44:27-34)

His father's pain was never Yosef's desire; quite the opposite. It was his father's misery which tormented him. Yosef relents at this juncture, for Yehuda has shown heroism. It would have been easy for Yehuda to reason that Rachel and her sons were all tainted by the same evil: Rachel had stolen the terphim years ago, Yosef her son was no better, and now the younger son Binyamin has proved his own moral turpitude - by stealing like his mother and being selfish and self-centered like his brother. In fact, this was the direction in which Yosef was leading him, and would have been the easy way for Yehuda to resolve his own dilemma. But Yehudah displays leadership and responsibility. He is willing to be enslaved so Binyamin can go free. Yehuda is unwilling to cause or endure his father's pain.

To Yehudah's heart-wrenching plea - Yosef has the ultimate response.

And Yosef said to his brothers, I am Yosef; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were shocked by him. (Bereishit 45:3)

Yehuda explains that Yaakov's life is intertwined with Binyamin's; he tells this "stranger" that Yaakov had a wife whom he loved and that if this last remaining son were to be wrested from him Yaakov will die. Yosef asks: "I am Yosef - is my father still alive? Are you really so concerned about Yaakov's well-being that you claim he will die if his beloved son is taken from him?" He challenges and chastises: "I am Yosef. Could my father be alive? Can he have survived what you have already done?" 6

To this there is no answer. To this there can not be an answer. All of their neat explanations are gone. No justifications will work. The stark truth of Yosef's existence stares them into silence. They have no words, only guilt.

The Rabbis compared this experience of silence to the Day of Judgment, when God, the All-knowing, judges man. No finesse, no legalese, no justifications: on that day, only the humiliation of facing the truth remains.7

Apparently, what Yosef seeks is not revenge; that could have been easily achieved, given his position of power. Instead, he takes his brothers on a tour - an emotional guilt trip. He does not seek their humiliation; that was never his objective. He wants to remind them of the past, to remind them that there is someone they have forgotten.

And he said, It is my brothers that I seek (37:16)

He wants his brothers to be looking for him; all he ever wanted was his brothers.



1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at

2. It unclear if Yosef did succeed in arriving at the end, when Yosef reveals himself, the text attests that "Yosef could not contain himself" any longer, it sounds that he did wish to contain himself at least bit longer. See Bereishit 45:1.

3. Bereishit 43:34 ...And they drank, and were merry with him.

4. According to the Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze (Warsaw Edition) section 12, Rachel takes the teraphim to prevent Lavan from divining the location of her family as they escape.

5. See Bereishit 44,5: Is not this it in which my lord drinks, and whereby indeed he divines?

6. See the commentary of the Seforno, 45:3.


7. Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash Warsaw edition siman 5, also see Kli Yakar, and Rabbenu Bachya.



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