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But Did He Know?

By: Rav Michael Susman

Despite having read the parshiot comprising the story of the sale of Yosef by his brothers and the aftermath countless times, I always experience two reactions each time I read it anew. Firstly, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s soundtrack immediately starts playing in my head. And secondly, I am inevitably swept up by the energy and tension in the story. In last week’s Parsha we left the brother’s confounded by the mercurial behavior of the Viceroy of Egypt, knowing that they had been set up and that Binyamin had been framed. This week’s parsha brings that tension to a head, as Yehuda directly confronts the Egyptian leader.  In previous shiurim we have commented on the chess game that Yehuda and Yosef play with each other until the shocking (at least for the brothers) climax, when Yosef reveals his true identity to his speechless brothers. In this week’s shiur I would like to focus on the aftermath of this revelation, and specifically address the question as to whether or not Yaakov Avinu ever discovered the truth as to what had happened to Yosef (h/t to Maddie Wingerin MTA 2019 for the question!). 

The earliest indication that Yaakov might, at least subconsciously, be aware that Yosef was still alive can be found immediately after Yaakov is informed of the "death" of Yosef. Commenting on the passuk (37:35) which reports that Yaakov refuses to be comforted over Yosef's death, Rashi explains that when an individual mistakenly believes that a loved one has died he will not be able to be comforted. Psychologically we are only prepared to move on from the loss of a loved one when we accept that loss as being irreversible. If the one we mourn is still alive then our subconscious will not be able to let go, making true comfort unattainable. This of course does not suggest that Yaakov knew that Yosef was alive. Yaakov believed Yosef to be dead, but his inability to be comforted indicates that at some level he instinctively sensed that this was not necessarily true.

While Yaakov did not know that Yosef was alive, Yosef’s true fate was not hidden from others. The Midrash (Breishit Rabba 84) is quite clear that Yitzhak Avinu was aware that Yosef was still alive. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that Yitzhak was aware of the circumstances of Yosef’s disappearance or of his grandsons’ complicity in that disappearance. He could easily have assumed that Yosef was kidnapped or attacked on his way to find his brothers. We will see that this may have been Yaakov’s belief to his dying day.

The obvious question is of course why did Yitzhak not share this information with his son? The Midrash answers that Yitzhak did not reveal this information to Yaakov because he reasoned that if Hashem did not reveal Yosef’s fate to Yaakov then he was also forbidden to do so. But why would Hashem have not wished for Yitzhak to have done so? 

One interesting answer can be found in Midrash Tanchuma VaYeshev 2.  The Midrash there suggests that when the brothers sold Yosef they decided to bind themselves as a group to an inviolable vow (cherem) that none of them would reveal to Yaakov the truth of what they had done to Yosef. But, says the Midrash, they faced a technical problem. In order for the vow to be binding they needed a quorum of ten. However, there were only nine of them present to enact the vow. (Reuven as we know wished to save Yosef but was absent at the time of the sale.) In order to complete their quorum, says the Midrash, they enlisted Hashem himself as the tenth party to the vow, thereby preventing Hashem himself from revealing the truth to Yaakov. This idea of course raises fascinating questions about when and how people can limit Hashem’s ability to act, but that is a discussion for another shiur.

One way or another, when the brothers returned from Egypt with the news that Yosef is alive and is now serving as the de facto ruler of Egypt Yaakov is taken by surprise to such an extent that at first he refuses to believe his sons. Only after seeing solid proof of their claim is he willing to accept their claim. And this brings us back to our original question. Did Yaakov ever discover the truth of what happened to Yosef? The text itself is silent.

The closest textual indication that Yaakov may have known the truth can be found in Parshat VaYechi. The Torah there tells us that after Yaakov’s death and burial in Eretz Yisrael the brothers feared Yosef’s retribution (50:15-22). In order to protect themselves, they tell Yosef that Yaakov had specifically instructed to ask Yosef to forgive them for what they had to Yosef.  It would be reasonable to assume that in order to make this claim that Yaakov would have had to be aware of what they had done. Rashi seems to accept this reading, as his comment on the passuk (16) focuses on the concept of being untruthful in order to preserve harmony and whether the brothers were justified in doing so. Critically, Rashi points out that Yaakov never gave such a command as Yosef was not suspect in his (Yaakov’s) eyes (to take vengeance for what the brothers had done). If Rashi believes that Yaakov felt that Yosef was above taking vengeance he must have known the circumstances which made such a suspicion relevant.

Rashi’s commentary on Yaakov’s parting message to his sons also indicates that Rashi felt that Yaakov was aware of the circumstances behind Yosef’s disappearance. In both his message to Shimon and Levi as well as his message to Yehuda, Rashi understands that Yaakov references their role in the planned murder and ultimate sale of Yosef (Rashi to 49:6 and 49:9).

Ramban, however, believes that Yaakov never learned the truth. Writing in our Parsha (45:27) Ramban states that the simple reading of the passukim is that Yaakov never learned the truth. Instead, Yaakov believed that Yosef became lost on his way to meet his brothers and was abducted and taken to Egypt. This is of course the source for our suggestion above that Yitzhak only knew that Yosef was alive but was unaware of the circumstances of Yosef’s disappearance. 

Ramban claims that the very fact that the brothers felt compelled to fabricate the supposed command that Yosef forgive them supports his thesis. Had they admitted to Yaakov what they had done, then the brothers would have asked their father to intercede with Yosef on their behalf before his death. The fact that they do not do so demonstrates that Yaakov never knew. 

The Midrash (Pesikta Raba VaYechi 3) also posits the position that Yaakov remained unaware of what really happened to Yosef. The Midrash is curious how it could be that Yosef was unaware of his father’s illness and had to be apprised by messengers of his deterioration. It then answers that Yosef purposely limited his interaction with his father out of concern that his father would press him for details of what had happened and that he would inadvertently slip and reveal what the brothers had done.

Rav Amnon Bazak (click here) uses the approach of the Midrash and Ramban to demonstrate that just as the brothers repented for their behavior toward Yosef that Yosef also repented for his sins towards the brothers. One of Yosef’s greatest faults was that he had spoken Loshon Hara to his father about his brothers. By refraining from telling Yaakov what had happened, Yosef is in fact correcting his great flaw and is doing Teshuva. Ironically, the brothers seem to be unaware of this, and assume that Yosef must have told their father the truth. They suspect that he is ultimately “the same old Yosef” who will tell their father the worst about them. Hence they feel comfortable lying to Yosef about the alleged command that Yaakov had made. Only when they understand that Yosef never shared the truth with Yaakov do they realize their error, and true reconciliation can finally take place.




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