Joseph and His Brothers II
This week’s parashah is Miketz. After many adventures, Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He is responsible for grain distribution and it is a time of famine in Egypt and neighbouring Canaan. Jacob instructs his sons to go down to Egypt and “buy grain for us there that we may live and not die.”
When they arrive in Egypt, they encounter Joseph, but they do not recognise the brother whom they had sold to a caravan of merchants two decades ago. Joseph certainly recognises them, “but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.”
Joseph provides the grain but takes one of the brothers as a prisoner and insists that the brothers must return to Egypt with Benjamin, who had remained at home with his father. The brothers pay for the grain, but they discover on the journey home that their money has been returned and is still in their grain sacks.
Why Joseph behaved to his brothers as he did is not made clear. He evidently found the situation he had created very difficult: he overhears the brothers discussing what had taken place and recalling their guilt for what had happened so long ago, and he leaves the room and weeps, returning a few moments later.
How precisely the brothers recall the past is very remarkable. They had come perilously close to murdering their sibling and had eventually sold him, dipping his coat in the blood of a slaughtered animal and thrusting it in front of their father, who would have still been grieving for his beloved Rachel.
The key verse is 42:21: “And they said to one another: ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.’”
The verse does not deny that the brothers’ acts had been intrinsically wrong, but it focuses not upon the actions but on the failure of empathy and the inability to respond to the distress of their brother that led them to act as they did and made their wrongdoing possible. One can suggest, as we have seen in recent weeks, that this failure of empathy was in turn rooted in the anxieties, insecurities and fears that were brought about by the very fraught situation of the familial relationships that they had inherited.
In these circumstances normative repentance would not be adequate. Normative penitence involves recognition that one has sinned, confession, regret and resolve for better behaviour in the future, but none of these really address the depth of the problem, as they are focused only on the act of wrongdoing and do not address the profound disturbance that made the act possible.
There is a fascinating comment of Rashi on a seemingly innocuous verse in last week’s parashah (38:1). The verse is at the beginning of the story of Judah and Tamar which interrupts the Joseph narratives. The verse simply says: “And it happened at that time that Judah went down from his brethren and turned to an Adullamite whose name was Hirah.”
Rashi comments on the phrase “Vayered Yehudah” “and Judah went down”, explaining that the story of Tamar follows on the sale of Joseph. When the brothers saw Jacob’s intense distress, they deposed Judah from his leadership role, saying that if Judah had advised them to let Joseph go, they would have listened to him, as they had when he suggested the sale of their brother to the merchants. This says much about the fragility of group behaviour and the role of religious leadership in times of conflict, which is clearly both perilous and absolutely crucial. It is also a sign of hope, as it seems to indicate that even aggressive group behaviour is not beyond redemption.
Joseph’s response to his brothers’ reappearance remains highly enigmatic, but one can suggest that he wanted to enable them repair a past that had clearly haunted them ever since the very dark time when they had come very close to murdering their brother. Their experience of a hard and apparently unfeeling ruler – Joseph makes himself a stranger and speaks harshly (42:7) uttering an accusation that would have been quite incomprehensible – gives them an insight into the world they had created for their brother in Dothan that had defined their lives ever since. When they find the money they had paid over for the grain had been returned, they are terrified and feel that someone is plotting against them, as they had once plotted to kill their brother.
Once again they have to break bad news to their father, this time about what is to happen to Benjamin, Rachel’s second and apparently only surviving son. The Jewish commentaries point out that their response is very different to the brutality that they had displayed when they thrust Joseph’s bloodstained coat in front of Jacob and asked him to identify it. This time they were far more sensitive – for example, they minimised the harshness of Joseph’s ultimatums and did not tell their father all that had happened to them in Egypt.
At the end of the parashah, the brothers are stopped and searched on Joseph’s instructions as they leave the city where he had offered them hospitality, without, as yet, disclosing his identity. Joseph’s goblet is found in Benjamin’s grain sack and, as we will see next week, the brothers must respond to Joseph’s suggestion that they leave Benjamin to his fate and go home to their father in peace. What happens next will be very remarkable indeed.