Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing God

A disturbing question hangs over our story. It is an obvious problem and the answer does not yield easily.

When the sons of Yaakov arrive at Yosef’s door in search of food, instead of revealing his identity and openly confronting their unresolved issues, Yosef decides to play games. He accuses them of spying and he demands that they prove their innocence by bringing their younger brother down to Egypt (42:9-15). This is just the first stage of an elaborate scheme that both confounds and torments the family for months.

Why does Yosef pull this cruel prank on his brothers? Is it revenge that he is after? Is his thirst for revenge so intense that it bulldozes any concern for his own father’s distress? Regardless, revenge fails to explain Yosef’s game. If he wants revenge, Yosef ought to simply throw them all in the dungeon. Moreover, revenge is sweet. Yosef should be enjoying himself, not constantly breaking down in tears (cf. 42:23; 43:30).

What is the idea of shlepping Binyomin down to Egypt (42:15)? This seems to be a cruelty aimed directly at the innocent Yaakov (42:38). And what of the planting of the money in their packs (42:25)? Or the framing of Binyomin as a thief (44:2)? What in heaven’s name is Yosef doing?

The answer to all these questions is that Yosef is orchestrating a Teshuvah opportunity for his brothers. At the end of last week’s parsha, Binyomin stood accused of theft (44:12). Yosef claimed Binyomin as a slave and, in the last words of the parsha, told the other brothers to return “to their father in peace.” The crime scene of twenty years ago has reappeared. The brothers can once again eliminate their father’s favorite son!

The brothers sold Yosef because they feared that history would repeat itself. Just as Yitzchak wanted to give the berachos to his favorite son Eisav (25:28; 26:1-4), the brothers expected Yaakov to pass the berachos on to his favorite son, the child of his beloved deceased wife Rachel (37:3). And just as Yaakov had “stolen” the berachos away from his brother Eisav, so too would the power-hungry Yosef attempt to do the same. Yosef was a threat and so they eliminated him – only to create a new monster, Binyomin. Binyomin was the new Yosef, his father’s overprotected favorite. (Like Yosef before him, Binyomin must stay home when all his brothers go out to work, cf. 37:14; 42:4.) The brothers suspected that Binyomin might try to steal their birthright and now their fears have been confirmed. Binyomin is indeed a thief! But it is no surprise, really. It runs in the family.

Years back, as Yaakov was leaving the house of Lavan, Rachael stole her father’s Teraphim, pagan articles used for divination. Lavan took chase, and soon caught up with Yaakov and accused him of theft. Unaware that Rachel had stolen the Teraphim, Yaakov declared that whoever stole them should die (31:32). Our story is identical. The brothers are leaving Egypt and Yosef sends his officer to take chase. He catches up with them and accuses them of stealing Yosef’s goblet. Unaware that it is in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers exclaim, “If any of us (lit. your servants) has it in his possession, he shall die!” (44:8). According to the Midrash, the parallels to the past do not escape the brothers’ notice. When the goblet is found in Binyomin’s pack, they yell at him, “You take after your mother!” (Midrash HaGadol).

What Yosef has done here is reinforce the brothers' fear of a thieving Binyomin running off with Yaakov’s precious berachos. And to ensure their jealousy is primed, earlier that day at lunch, Yosef gave Binyomin five times more food than everyone else (43:34).

Now the brothers have a choice. They can eliminate the privileged Binyomin without even getting their hands dirty. Or they can protect him.

Yosef wanted his brothers to make the right choice, so he made it easy for them to deny Binyomin’s indictment. Before the brothers went back to Israel the first time, Yosef returned their money to their packs (42:25) and he did the same again now (44:1). His overseer claimed that it was a gift from God (43:23), but the brothers knew the truth. They knew that Yosef must have done it and they feared they were being framed (42:35). Now that Yosef’s goblet was found in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers could not ignore the the possibility that Yosef had planted it there. On the one hand, Benyomin has an inherited tendency for theft and was caught with the goods, but on the other hand, the Egyptian governor is a madman with a history of planting incriminating evidence. Whom to believe?
"Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them... but they did not recognize him" (42:7-8). Yosef recognized his brothers, when they were given over into his hands he recognized them as brothers and had compassion on them. But they did not recognize him when he fell into their hands to treat him as a brother. (Rashi ad loc.)  
Yosef engineered this trauma for the brothers because he loved them. Before revealing his identity, Yosef wants to give his brothers a chance to vindicate themselves. He wants to watch them stand up and defend Binyomin - Yaakov’s favorite, Rachel’s son, and the new threat to their own destiny. After experiencing their hatred, jealousy and false accusations, Yosef wants to witness his brothers judge Binyomin favorably. He wants to evoke the memory of his mother Rachel and watch the children of the “secondary” wives deal with that uncomfortable reality. And Yosef wants to see his brothers express caring and love for their father Yaakov and redeem themselves. Yehuda stands up and, representing all of the brothers, he heroically does all these things. Yosef can now declare "I am Yosef!" and reenter a healed family.


A question remains. What right did Yosef have to do all this? It may help heal the family, but it is a risky business and a painful one. Who gave Yosef the right to play God?

The answer can be found in Yosef's second dream. Yosef saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him. Celestial bodies take orders from God, not Yosef. Why are they bowing to Yosef? Unless this is precisely the point: Hashem is telling Yosef to play "god" with his brothers. Engineer a Teshuvah opportunity for them and then forgive them. Just like God.

A second explanation for Yosef's behavior is rooted in Yosef's lifelong career in dream interpretation. When the baker and the butler had their dreams in the dungeon, Yosef interpreted them to mean that the baker will die and the butler will live and be freed (40:8-19). Why did God grant prophetic dreams to an Egyptian butler and baker? There is only one explanation. Yosef’s accurate interpretation built his reputation and ultimately led to his own freedom from prison. It turns out that the dreams of the butler and baker were not for themselves at all; they were entirely for Yosef (cf. Rashi to 40:1).

Dreamers must act to bring about the fulfillment of their dreams. The butler would have realized the true purpose of his dreams, but Yosef ruined it by intervening and asking him to put in a good word for him (40:14). This delayed things for two years. In order for the dream to function independently as the catalyst for Yosef’s freedom, the butler had to first forget about Yosef and his request (40:23). Only then could history flow naturally from the human response to dreams. (This explains the Midrash quoted by Rashi to 40:23.)

Pharaoh also has dreams that Yosef interprets, again following the same pattern. As opposed to the Egyptian dream interpreters who thought Pharaoh's dream was about his seven daughters, Yosef knows that Pharaoh is not dreaming about himself. Pharaoh is dreaming about worldwide famine and as king, he is no personal danger. Pharaoh’s dreams are not for himself, but for others – for the salvation of his people and the empowerment of Yosef - but Pharaoh must act to make his dreams come true. These revelations about the nature of dreams do not go by unnoticed by Yosef.

When Yosef’s brothers arrive at his door, the Torah tells us exactly what when went through his mind: “Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamed for them” (42:9). Not simply “his dreams” nor “the dreams that he dreamed about them.” Rather, “the dreams that he dreamed for them.”

Yosef’s multiple experiences with dreams taught him a fundamental truth. The prophetic element of dreams is never limited to the destiny of the dreamer alone. Yosef’s dreams of his brothers bowing before him could not be for his own benefit. On the contrary, those dreams served as the catalyst for his sale into slavery! Dreams are not for the self; dreams are for others. And dreamers (if they the survive) have an obligation to act.

When the brothers arrived, Yosef had an epiphany. His dreams, the butler's and the baker's dreams, Pharaoh's dreams - the string of dreams are all united and lead to one inescapable conclusion. Yosef is destined to play God with his brothers - for their own good. This was the meaning of his vision of his brothers bowing before him. Yosef the dream interpreter must bring all six dreams to fruition.

Yosef hates his mission, but he suffers through it, crying through it, recognizing that the very dream that instigated the brothers to sell him obligates him to orchestrate their atonement and reunite the family of Israel. But this understanding is predicated on the extraordinary idea that even dreams of power must always be interpreted selflessly.


  1. Rabbi--beautiful how you tied together so many key points of the parsha!!

    your description of Yosef's orchestration of an opportunity for the brothers to repent seems very much like Rambam's definition of teshuvah gemura--wherein full repentance can only be achieved when the conditions of the initial sin are replicated exactly.

    also you give a nice way to understand the apparent redundancy, "the cupbearer did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him."

    thanks for many great thought-provoking ideas!

  2. Barry-
    Just for the record, I make no claim on this approach in the general sense. R. Hirsch writes that Yosef presented the brothers with an opportunity to eliminate Binyomin because he wanted to know how they related to the last remaining son of Rachel (quoted in the Stone Chumash on pg. 233). And Nechama Leibowitz quotes the very Rambam about Teshuvah Gemurah that you referred to. But there is much in the post that is original, so I accept and thank you for the warm feedback. Glad you liked it!

  3. Barry-
    The Teshuvah Gemurah connection is truely fascinating. We sin against God, but He, in His infinite compassion, orchestrates an opportunity for us to redeem ourselves by presenting us with the very same challenge a second time. Yosef interpreted his dreams as a mandate to play God with his brothers, and he follows through. The brothers sinned against him, but like God Himself, it is Yosef who orchestrates their Teshuvah Gemurah opportunity!

  4. I never understood the story of Yosef and his brothers this way...The description of Yosef's removal of "self" in order to express love to his brothers by allowing them to do "teshuva", is a challenging directive..
    Thank you

  5. I very much enjoyed and appreciated your new idea that Yosef learned from the other dreams that he should actively bring about the directive of his dream. There were many, many new ideas in your presentation that could be expanded into quite a long and extensive talk.

    I would suggest the modification of not stating absolutely that the only purpose of a dream is for others. The essential message could work even if you say that Yosef learned that message of dreams must not be limited to addressing only the dreamer. I don't think that the dreams of perek horoeh will support the statement that dreams are only for others. And it might be better not to be forced to say that paroh wasn't getting a message of how to conduct his paroship. But that's just a quibble, and anyone who spent time in a beis medrash can't avoid quibbling.

  6. "it might be better not to be forced to say that paroh wasn't getting a message of how to conduct his paroship."

    I didn't make any such statement.

  7. How do we really know the brothers passed this test the second time around? Yehuda approached Yosef and begged him to let Binyamin go, but we don't know how the other brothers felt. We just assume that Yehuda was the representative. We learn that Reuven calls Binyamin a thief. Maybe just Yehuda passed the test, but not the other brothers?
    Sandy Gordon