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Ya'akov, Yoseph and the Brothers Another Approach

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

The last four parshiyot of Sefer Bereishit cover the complex story of Yosef and his brothers.

One of the most central and famous issues that has been and is still being discussed by virtually all learners of chumash, is the question as to why Yosef never tried to get in touch with his father during all those years that he was in Mitzrayim. While studying these parshiyot in our Chumash shiur in the midrasha this year, it became clear to us that almost every single one of the commentators we studied found it necessary to address this issue somewhere in their commentary.

Since this matter is so well known, I would just briefly like to summarize what I think are the two major approaches to this question, and refer to the relatively new, although also now well-known third, approach.

The Ramban[1] explains that Yosef behaved in the way that he did in order to realize his dreams. Yosef comprehended his dreams as a form of prophecy and he was obligated to fulfill them. His behavior towards his brothers and his apparent disregard of his father was all in order to realize his dreams.[2]

The Abarbanel, after taking issue with the Ramban, explains that Yosef did what he did in order to set in motion and see through a process of te'shuvah for his brothers. The plan was to force his brothers into a situation where their loyalty to Binyamin would be tested and if they remained faithful to him at all costs it would be a sign of their true repentance. [3] 

Rav Yoel Bin Nun, in what has become a very well-known approach, suggested that Yosef suspected that his father initiated his expulsion from the family and therefore did not try and reconcile with them until he realized, after the truth regarding the brother's lie to Ya'akov was revealed in Yehuda's words to him in Parshat Va'yigash, that he had been mistaken all those years.

For a full understanding and appreciation of the abovementioned ideas I recommend browsing the VBM website on these last four parshiyot, where there are several essays presenting, analyzing and comparing these ideas.

I would like to suggest an alternative approach to the whole issue, an approach that was inspired in class by a remark of one of the students, Miriam Rosenblum. She suggested that while Yosef was a slave in Mitzrayim he could not contact his family and when he was viceroy he did not want to contact them.

Let's explain. It is very reasonable to believe that the status of a slave in Mitzrayim would deny the slave any means of acting independently in their own interests. Not only would it be very difficult to do so but also very dangerous for the slave had he been found out. Notwithstanding the fact that he was the master of Potiphar's household for some of the time, he was nevertheless still his slave. Acting out of line would carry severe consequences as indeed it did for Yosef after being accused by Potiphar's wife.

The problem though, as almost all the commentators ask, is why did he not act once he became second-in-command of Mitzrayim? The answer is because, even though he now held a very high position, he was still an outsider. What enabled Par'oh to appoint Yosef to such a high position was precisely because he was an "eved Ivri" a mere slave of the lowest-of-the-low social standing. He did not represent a political threat either to Par'oh or to his advisors and ministers who would otherwise have negated his appointment. Possibly, the most poignant verse best capturing the situation is this one:

And he washed his face and came out, and he restrained himself and said, "Serve the food." And they set for him separately and for them separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with him separately, because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians.[4]

The strength of Yosef's position was dependent on his personal weakness.

Before we continue I would like to draw on what seems to be a very similar scenario.

In Megilat Esther we are told that when Esther was taken to the house of Achashverosh, "Esther did not reveal her nationality or her lineage, for Mordechai had ordered her not to reveal it,"[5] and "Esther would not tell her lineage or her nationality, as Mordechai had commanded her, for Esther kept Mordechai's orders as she had when she was raised by him."[6]

Why did Mordechai order this of Esther? Various explanations have been given.[7] What is common to some of them is that he did so in anticipation of the upcoming events regarding the decrees of Haman. Now, granted that Mordechai was a prophet, there is however no mention whatsoever in the Megilah, at this point[8], that there would be decrees against the Jews. Interestingly enough, Rashi and others suggest that he did so in the hope of causing the king to despise Esther due to her lowly unknown background and not take her as his wife. These two explanations are not only mutually exclusive, they are pulling in opposite directions!

It seems reasonable that the reason Mordechai wanted Esther's identity to remain unknown was to safeguard her. The woman chosen by Achashverosh would be taking the place of Vashti who had been executed by Achashverosh and his advisors. According to Chazal, Vashti was the great-granddaughter of King Nevuchadnetzar, the granddaughter of King Evil-Merodach and the daughter of King Belshatzar. Was the execution of Vashti merely because she wouldn't come to her husband's banquet, or was it because she might become an opposing political force to the king?

According to the Midrashic account, Vashti was a savvy politician, and the ladies' banquet that she held in parallel to Achasverosh's banquet represented an astute political maneuver.[9]

In light of this Mordechai told Esther to keep a low profile. As long as Esther was just a young woman with no formidable family of royalty behind her she was safe.

The same applies to Yosef. As long as he is a lonely "eved Ivri" he is safe.

However, along come his ten brothers who appear in Mitzrayim. Intuitively, Yosef reacts in a way that will not reveal that they are his brothers. It would be dangerous for him and possibly for them too. The natural thing to do then would be to send them off on their way and avoid the danger. However, thats when the Torah says:

And Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them, and he said to them, "You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land."[10]

Yosef's remembering of his dreams which he dreamt "for them" (lahem, in the word of the verse) is what causes him to act in this way. Yosef remembers his dream of their sheaves bowing down to his and knows that he has a responsibility to sustain his family. His mission now is to take care of his family but at the same time ensure his anonymity for both his and their safety. He therefore devises[11] a plan to get his family down to Mitzrayim, even under false pretenses, where he would be able to take care of them and possibly reveal the connection between them at a later, hopefully safer, time.

One of the proofs for this understanding can be seen from the moment when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in last week's Parsha. The verse says: "And Yosef could not restrain himself,"[12] implying that if he could have he would have. According to the previously mentioned explanations, especially the Abarbanel and Rav Bin Nun, why would Yosef want to continue the plot? The brothers have repented and Yosef knows the truth about what had happened - why would he want to wait any longer? However, according to what we have said, Yosef didn't want to reveal himself at all to his family, at least not yet, as it would have placed him, and possibly them in danger. Indeed, even though he couldn't restrain himself any longer, he made sure to remove everyone (ie: the Egyptians) from the room before doing so. After saying "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?"[13], note he does not say I am Yoseph your brother, is our father still alive?, as he might still be heard by those leaving the room. He then calls them to come close to him (to whisper?) and reveals his full identity and asks about their father. Immediately, before word gets out about them being his family, he tells them to hurry home and bring Ya'akov down to mitzrayim too. However, "And the voice was heard [in] Par'oh's house, saying, "Yosef's brothers have come!"[14] Once again, note that Yosef did not tell, rather "the voice was heard".

In the framework of this shiur it is difficult to expand further on this theme, however a careful reading of last week's and this week's parsha raises many questions regarding the nature of the relationship between Yosef and the Egyptians - starting from the fact that Yosef needs Par'oh's consent to bring his family, followed by the attempt of Yosef to present his brothers as mere shepherds, Yaakov saying to Par'oh "The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings"[15] [16], secluding them in Goshen, and finally the spectacle of Yosef almost having to beg Par'oh to let him leave Mitzrayim to bury his father in Eretz Ke'na'an, after his father had made him vow to do so, possibly anticipating the difficulty Yosef might encounter trying to do so. These and other details of the narrative of Yosef, Ya'akov and his brothers can readily be understood on the background of the precarious situation Yosef and his family were in, during the "good years" in galut Mitzrayim.

Shabbat Shalom


[1] This explanation is adopted by many commentators subsequent to the Ramban, such as the Vilna Gaon, Ha'ketav Ve'hakabala, the Ne'tziv and others.

[2] See Ramabn on Bereishit 42;9.

[3] This approach was adopted by the Akeidat Yitzchak, Rav Hirsch and others as well. Rav Meidan too embraced this idea and elaborated on it in depth. See

[4]Breishit 43;31-32.

[5] Megilat Ester 2;10.

[6] Ibid 20.

[8] Haman is only first mentioned in Chapter 3.

[9] Segal, Eliezer Holidays, history, and halakhah.

[10] Breishit 42;9.

[11] See Onkelos Breishit 42;7.

[12] Breishit 45;1.

[13] Breishit 45;3.

[14] Breishit 45;16.

[15] Breishit 47;9.

[16] Does he perhaps mean "I am not a threat"?


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