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Plan Interrupted

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Ever since the sale of Yosef, the tension has been building. As the preceding chapters detail Yosef's astounding, meteoric transformation from imprisoned slave to regal viceroy, through the scene in which Yosef and his brothers meet, we know there will have to be a resolution. The "game" of Yosef's hiding will come to end and he will reveal his identity. What we are less sure of is the atmosphere that will prevail: As we inch toward the moment of resolution, the tension is heightened as we wonder whether Yosef will reveal himself in vengeance, in anger, in violence - or if there will finally be reconciliation. As we reach the crescendo, at the moment the narrative reaches its climax, the verses seem to tell us that the end of the story is somewhat premature.

Then Yosef could not contain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, "Cause every man to go out from me." And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. (Bereishit 45:1)

Yosef, we are told, could contain himself no longer. By implication, we understand that in fact Yosef wanted to continue the charade. He was not completely ready to reveal his identity to his brothers at this point, but was "forced" to do so. What caused Yosef to show himself at this juncture, and what was it that made him want to wait? What did Yosef hope to accomplish by his actions, and what was it that he felt still remained unaccomplished?

Can we say that perhaps Yosef had no master plan, that he was caught up in the charade and did not know how or when to end it? This seems highly uncharacteristic: Yosef is nothing if not a planner. After hearing no more than two of Pharaoh's dreams, Yosef created a business plan which would dictate the course of the Egyptian economy for the better part of the next two decades. It seems equally clear that in his dealings with his brothers, Yosef had a very carefully constructed plan, and his behavior was very calculated. All of his words and actions, from the moment his brothers appeared in Egypt, seem to be tactics in the greater strategy. Every step leading up to this moment seems as carefully considered as the moves of a chess grandmaster. While the brothers are unaware that there is a match being played, Yosef seems to have plotted his course many steps in advance. The brothers plod along, oblivious to the fact that they are being watched and tested. What is it that Yosef hopes to accomplish?

We know, then, that Yosef was unable to continue his well-conceived and well-executed plan, but we do not know the goal of his plan, nor what brought Yosef to abruptly abandon it. What caused Yosef to reveal himself to his brothers when he did? What caused Yosef to break down?

This is not the first time Yosef breaks down. Along the way Yosef pauses to regain his composure a number of times in the narrative: first, when the brothers connect their present dilemma with their guilt in selling Yosef, their admission brings tears to Yosef's eyes:

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." And they knew not that Yosef understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter. And he turned himself away from them, and wept; and returned to them again, and talked with them, and took from them Shimon, and bound him before their eyes. Bereishit (42:21-24)

At a later juncture, Yosef again needs to regain composure:

And Yosef made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother; and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there. And he washed his face, and went out, and controlled himself, and said, "Set on bread." (Bereishit 43:3-31)

On more than one occasion, Yosef proceeds despite feelings of compassion, despite almost being overwhelmed by his brothers' vulnerability.

Returning to the verse, we should note that additional information is supplied: The text does not simply state that Yosef could not control or contain himself, but that he could not contain himself "before all those who stood by him." What does this additional clause mean? To whom does it refer, and what did these "significant others" have to do with Yosef's discomfort? Perhaps, as Rashi suggests, Yosef could no longer bear his brothers' humiliation, and he ordered all of the attending members of court to leave the room.(1) Perhaps, as the Rambam suggests, Yosef's motives were less compassionate: He wanted to keep the story of their treachery quiet, either out of concern for their reputation - or for fear of how their shared history might reflect upon him.(2) Yet the very next verse seems to contradict these suggestions, for in what seems to be an outburst of emotion Yosef cried out, and his cries were heard by all of Egypt.

And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Bereishit 45:2)

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk offers an explanation that is both simple and chilling: Yosef had one only thing in mind; he pursued one goal, and that is why he overcame his compassion time after time. His ultimate goal was to bring about the fruition of the dreams of which he spoke to his brothers and his father. This would require that his father be brought before him to pay obeisance to the viceroy of Egypt.(3) This approach paints Yosef as remarkably self-serving, claiming that Yosef was motivated by a single-minded, self- centered desire to bring about the fulfillment of his own dreams.

This approach is not alone in ascribing Yosef's behavior to his dreams: When the brothers admit their guilt, Yosef hides his tears, regains his composure, and throws Shimon into prison. The Ramban reasons that had Yosef been hoping to extract from his brothers an admission of guilt, this should have been the time to end the charade: The brothers' veneer of self-righteousness had been shattered. Clearly, Yosef was seeking something more: The Ramban explains that Yosef's goal was to make the dreams come true.(4) At the point Shimon is seized and incarcerated, Yosef's first dream had been realized nearly completely; ten of his eleven brothers had bowed to him, and only Binyamin was missing. Yosef sets out to bring Binyamin to Egypt in order to complete his first dream. After Binyamin is brought before him, Yosef sets out to fulfill the second dream, in which Yaakov plays a part. The master plan is tailored to the fulfillment of these dreams, and this is what lies at the bottom of Yosef's "failure" to contact his father throughout the years that had elapsed: Had the brothers or Yaakov known that he was alive, had they known the true identity of the viceroy of Egypt before whom they stood, they would not have bowed to him, nor would Yosef's dreams have come true.(5)

Other commentaries are not comfortable with this approach and take issue with the Ramban.(6) Still others examine the narrative from the perspective of the brothers: How did they read the situation? What did they understand, what motivation did they ascribe to the Prince of Egypt who had suddenly turned their lives upside down? As Yosef manipulates them, step after step, forcing them in a particular direction, do the brothers discern any master plan? As the verses clearly tell us, they feel guilt, and seem to sense that this turn of events is the start of their well-deserved punishment for the way they treated Yosef.(7) Do they have any other thoughts about the Egyptian viceroy other than the understanding that he is the vehicle chosen by Heaven to mete out their punishment?

Yosef is very difficult for them to read. On the one hand, he represents the Egyptian Empire and all it stands for. On the other hand, his words to them speak of God, and of justice - concepts foreign, if not anathema, to an Egyptian mind:

And Yosef said to them the third day, "This do, and live; for I fear God." (Bereishit 42:18)

And he said, "Peace be to you, fear not; your God, and the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money." And he brought Shimon out to them. (Bereishit 43:23)

And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Binyamin, his mother's son, and said, "Is this your younger brother, of whom you spoke to me?" And he said, "God be gracious to you, my son." (Bereishit 43:29)

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)

Despite Yosef's repeated references to God, and his invocation of a system of justice that is familiar to them, the brothers seem to interpret Yosef's actions in a completely opposite direction, a far more sordid direction. According to the Midrash, the brothers suspect that this despot has designs on Binyamin. Presumably, Benyamin was very handsome, as the text attests regarding his mother and brother. The brothers are suspicious that Yosef manipulated them to bring their younger brother to Egypt, and, once there, Yosef had the damning evidence planted in Binyamin's pouch in order to take him as his personal slave:

"Just as Pharaoh decrees [promises] and does not fulfill his decree, so do you decree and not fulfill. As Pharaoh lusts for males, so do you." (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 93:6)

"Yehuda approached him": he approached with rebuke "...You are like Pharaoh: just as he likes women and lusts after them, likewise when you saw Binyamin and how handsome he is, you lusted after him, and [plotted] to make him your slave." (Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash chapter 5)

Yosef's behavior was suspicious: If, indeed, he wanted a slave, any of the older brothers would have been a better choice than the younger, weaker Binyamin. The brothers were convinced that it was Binyamin's beauty that had attracted Yosef. This is not a new theme regarding Egyptian aristocracy: The Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan accuses Potifar of having homosexual designs on Yosef, a fact which exacerbated his wife's forlorn state.(8) Egypt was a hotbed of immorality,(9) and infamous for homosexuality and pedophilia.

The brothers' suspicion that Yosef's intentions were less than honorable should come as no surprise; they do not entertain even the faintest notion, even in their wildest dreams, that this inscrutable, immoral monarch is actually their long-lost brother, a man who was not only sold, but was physically excised, cut out of the family. They do not dream that this man is Yosef, and that he has remained chaste - even at the price of being imprisoned. They do not see a Yosef HaTzaddik, nor do they see Yosef, grown to manhood and power. They see a lustful, powerful pervert. The only master plan they perceived was one engineered to satisfy Zafnat Paneach's (Yosef's Egyptian name) sexual appetite.

As readers of the text, the brothers' perspective is not helpful, for we know Yosef's identity - both his familial and personal history, and his moral fiber. What we still do not know is - what was Yosef thinking? His words, and the fact that he aborts his plan, indicate that his motives were not self-serving. He seems to be after more than the satisfaction of bringing his personal dreams to fruition at his family's expense. Yosef's words and actions are no more and no less than educational tools. Yosef is not seeking revenge, nor is he seeking vindication. Everything he says to his brothers and everything he does from the moment they stand before him is geared toward bringing the brothers to recognize him, to see him - and, as a result, to see his dreams - for what they really are. It is toward that end that Yosef pushes them, but they do not seem to understand. They don't understand that it is Yosef that he wants them to seek; they don't understand that it is Yosef he wants them to accept; they don't understand that it is Yosef who is in the room with them.

The brothers' failure to recognize Yosef is more than ironic, more than a personal insult, more than tragic. The fact is that everyone else who came into contact with Yosef throughout his life, including Potifar and his wife, the chief baker and the chief wine steward, the chief officer of Pharaoh's prison, and Pharaoh himself, immediately saw Yosef's greatness. Yosef rose to the top in every situation - save one: Only his brothers could not or would not recognize his leadership qualities, his innate talent, his God-given gifts. This is the essence of sinat hinam, the quintessential example of baseless hatred: The brothers' hatred blinded them to Yosef's greatness. Even when Yosef stands before them, having overcome every possible obstacle in his personal rise to power, even when he practically begs them to open their eyes and see the man behind robes of royalty, they refuse to see. They seem to prefer their jealousy and hatred over acceptance of Yosef as their rightful leader.

It is in this context that many Midrashim interpret the exchange between Yosef and Yehuda:

Another interpretation of "My lord asked": Yehuda said to him: "Behold the proof that you came with a pretext against us. How many countries came down to buy food! Did you ask them questions as you asked us? Did we want to marry your daughter, or did you ask to marry our sister? Nevertheless, we hid nothing from you." "Why so?" "Because I have become surety for him," he replied. 'Why didn't you act in that fashion when you sold your brother to the Yishmaelim for twenty pieces of silver and caused your elderly father pain when you said 'Yosef is torn to pieces'?" When Yehuda heard this he cried and screamed with a great voice and said "How can I go back to my father?" Yehuda said to Naftali, 'Go and see how many market places there are in Egypt.' He said, "Twelve." Yehuda said, "I will destroy three, the rest of you destroy one each." They said, "Egypt is not like Shechem; if you destroy Egypt you will destroy the entire world."

When Yosef saw that they had all agreed to destroy Egypt he said, "It is better that I reveal myself than Egypt be destroyed." Yosef then asked, "Where is your brother whom you said to be dead?" He demanded: "Where is he? Is it certain that he is dead?" "Yes," they replied. "Why do you speak falsely?," he upbraided them. "Did you not sell him to me, and I bought him from your hands? I will call him and he will answer me. Yosef the son of Yaakov, Yosef the son of Yaakov!" he cried out, while they looked in the four corners of the house. "What do you see?" said he. "I am Yosef, your brother" (ib. 45:4), but they did not believe him until he uncovered himself and showed that he was circumcised. (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 93:8)

The Midrash tells us why Yosef abandoned his plan: When he sees the benevolent, protective behavior directed toward Benyamin, he pushes them. He forces them to think about their behavior in his own case. At that point Yehuda threatens to destroy all of Egypt, and Yosef concludes that he must abort his plan. He tells them that Yosef is in the room, the final clue in his game plan to open their eyes to his identity. Tragically, the brothers are willing to look everywhere else, anywhere else, rather than look their brother in the eye and see him for who he truly is.

Another Midrash questions Yosef's wisdom in asking all others to leave the room, leaving him unprotected.(10) These are, after all, dangerous men; the massacre of Shechem would attest to their violent tendencies (which make Yosef's "proof" - his circumcision - all the more interesting). Yet Yosef seems to sense - correctly - that the brothers have indeed changed. He knows that he can render them speechless, and he does.

Why does Yehuda's threat to destroy Egypt shake Yosef's resolve and cause him to change his plan? Why was it so important to him to save Egypt from his brothers' anger? Was he afraid that he would be out of a job? Perhaps he knows that the survival of Egypt and the storehouses of grain is the only thing that can save the entire region. There may, however, be something else on his mind, something that is discussed by commentaries seeking a more plausible, more far-reaching understanding of Yosef's behavior and motives: Yosef knows that the vision of Avraham, which includes exile and slavery, will lead the Children of Israel to Egypt. It is for this reason that he cannot allow his brothers to destroy Egypt. Yosef's behavior, then, may be attributed to a heightened sense of responsibility for the future.

Yosef was, from a very early stage in his life, able to understand the future through dreams. He understood that the dreams of his youth were a window to the future - not only his own personal fate, but the future of his family and of the entire Jewish People.(11) He understood the other dreams that he came across later in life in similar fashion. Because of this insight, Yosef was uniquely sensitive to the ramifications of the terrible sin the brothers had committed by selling him - ramifications that extended and reverberated throughout Jewish history for millennia:(12) With the sale of Yosef, sinat chinam was unleashed and the Jewish People has never quite managed to correct this schism.(13)

The sale of Yosef, then, was seen by Yosef on a different plane than it was by the brothers. Yosef saw the sale in terms of Jewish history, and it is on these terms that he attempts to console his brothers when he finally reveals himself to them. From the brothers' perspective, the crime itself, an act of perfidy committed against an individual, was only the superficial level of the sale. Even on this level there is another aspect to the sale. The brothers' underlying attitude is unmasked when they sell him: Yosef is not part of the family. It is surely no coincidence that Yosef is sold to "Yishmaelim" and perhaps Midianites; both of these tribes are descendents of sons of Avraham who had been rejected, dispossessed from the Covenant. In some warped way, the brothers, for their part, may have seen this as Divine Providence.

When the brothers are first maligned by Yosef and arrested they respond with remorse:

And he put them all together under guard for three days. And Yosef said to them the third day, 'This do, and live; (for) I fear God. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in the house of your prison; you go, carry grain for the famine of your houses. But bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and you shall not die.' And they did so. 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.' And they knew not that Yosef understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter. And he turned himself away from them, and wept; and returned to them again, and talked with them, and took from them Shimon, and bound him before their eyes. (Bereishit 42:17-24)

As we have already seen, Yosef invoked God, and broke down in tears. He needed to regain his composure. The brothers admit their guilt, coming to realize their personal responsibility for the atrocity they committed against their younger brother. But this did not satisfy Yosef. He sought to correct a deeper stratum, a more profound aspect of the sin. Whereas the brothers had begun to see their guilt on a personal level, they had not yet come to understand the sin in national terms. They had "gotten rid of" their annoying brother, and they now regretted it. But they did not yet understand that they had disrupted the foundations of the Jewish People, of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Yosef's goal was to bring them to this level of understanding, and his purpose was two-fold: Not only did Yosef aim to solidify the foundations of the unity of the nation, he hoped to expedite the realization of God's Covenant with Avraham.

We may say that Yosef did, indeed, engineer the master plan in order to bring about the fulfillment of his dreams. However, the level at which this is true is not the level of personal satisfaction or vindication: Yosef understood his dreams as visions of the future of the entire nation. He saw his dreams as the continuation of Avraham's vision,(14) and of the Covenant with God. Yosef hoped that through his enslavement, the slavery and exile foretold in the Covenant with Avraham had begun, but he knew that this could only be so if his own personal suffering was understood by his brothers as their own. Yosef's goal was to open their eyes to the larger picture, to make them aware that they all were a part of something much greater than themselves. If they had been able to identify with Yosef's suffering, if they had made his suffering their own, this would have been the start of the realization of God's words to Avraham. If they did not, they would suffer - and only when they managed to become united in their suffering would the process of redemption begin.(15)

Yosef understood that only when the brothers accepted him as part of the family could the rift be truly healed. Only if the brothers accepted and embraced him, only when they understand his suffering as their own, could the course of Jewish history continue to its culmination. Only when the brothers see Yosef's suffering and imprisonment as their own can the years he, and later, they, spent in Egypt be considered part of the fulfillment of the promises made to Avraham. And so, he continues to hide his identity, engineering the arrival of the entire family in Egypt - engineering the beginning of the fruition of Avraham's vision. Each time he sends his brothers away, he sends them with "great wealth"; will they recognize the reference? If so, they will have begun to see themselves as agents of Jewish history, and they will be able to rise above their petty jealousies. But if they cannot recognize him, if they cannot read the signs and move to a higher level of understanding, Yosef is to remain estranged from the brothers, outside of the family. They may regret what they did to their brother - as they apparently do - but if they do not feel it, identify with it, take responsibility for it, then Yosef alone has taken responsibility for the future of the Jewish People, and his suffering remains his own. The years of his incarceration and isolation will have been for naught, and the Children of Israel will have to endure their own taste of slavery. If the brothers reject Yosef, then his slavery is irrelevant, and will need to be repeated; if they accept him, Yosef's personal slavery will be counted toward the national slavery which would soon follow.

As the Midrash (and the verses, less explicitly) indicate, Yosef fails: the brothers cannot recognize him. In their narrative, he is gone - dead, part of their past but not part of their future. His slavery is not the beginning of their slavery; it remains an independent, tragic chapter in Jewish history, whose reverberations are still felt today, every time one Jew mistreats another. Conversely, when we feel mutual responsibility, when we take care of one another, we imbue all of Jewish history, all Jewish suffering, with meaning and purpose, and we bring the redemption(16) that much closer.(17)



1. Rashi Bereishit 45:1.

2. Ramban Bereishit 45:1.

3. Meshech Chochma Bereishit 45:1.

4. Ramban Bereishit 42:9.

5. The Rosh raises the same question as the Ramban, but states that all the brothers took a vow not to reveal anything about the sale of Yosef; Yosef also felt bound by this vow.

6. I have explored this theme in greater detail in my book Explorations.

7. The theme of their guilt was explored in last year's essay on Parshat Vayigash, "Of Spies and Thieves,". See

8. Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan Bereishit 39:1.

9. From Pharaoh's taking of Sarah, to the proposition of Yosef by Mrs. Potifar, we see a pattern of immorality, later in the Torah the section of illicit sexual sins is introduces with the general law to avoid the "practices of the Land of Egypt," Vayikra 18:3.

10. See Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 93:9: THEN JOSEPH COULD NOT REFRAIN HIMSELF... AND HE CRIED: CAUSE EVERY MAN TO GO OUT FROM ME (45: 1). R. Hama b. R. Hanina and R. Samuel b. Nahmani discussed this. R. Hama b. R. Hanina said: Joseph did not act prudently, for had one of them kicked him, he would have died on the spot. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: He acted rightly and prudently. He knew the righteousness of his brethren and reasoned: Heaven forfend! My brothers are not to be suspected of bloodshed.

11. See my essay on Parshat Miketz 5770 at

12. There are those who connect the terrible sinat chinam ("groundless hatred") which is enumerated as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple, with the sale of Yosef. See Rav Simcha Bunim MiPishischa in his Arugat Habosem Parshat Miketz.

13. Other traditions connect the sale of Yosef with the tragic and gruesome deaths of the Ten Martyrs. The version of the Midrash preserved in the Yom Kippur liturgy makes this connection. See Shem MiShmuel Parshat Vayigash 5674.

14. See

15. The Ramban may be hinting at this. See Ramban 42:9, toward the end of the Ramban's comments.

16. See Rav Zadok Pri Tzadik Miketz section 8.

17. See Tiferet Shlomo Vayigash.



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