Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why does Yosef ask if Yaakov is still alive?

Two questions received by email:
1. After Yehuda's monologue about their father, why does Yosef inquire if he is alive? Yehuda said that if they take Binyamin, he would die. This clearly indicates that he was alive, and Yosef would certainly have realised.
2. Why did he never get in touch with them?
To expand upon point 1, in Bereishit 45, after Yehuda's speech, Yosef says:

ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.3 And Joseph said unto his brethren: 'I am Joseph; doth my father yet live?' And his brethren could not answer him; for they were affrighted at his presence.

Yet in the monologue, Yehuda said:
כ  וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, יֶשׁ-לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן, וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן; וְאָחִיו מֵת, וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ.20 And we said unto my lord: We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him.

and then:
כב  וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, לֹא-יוּכַל הַנַּעַר, לַעֲזֹב אֶת-אָבִיו:  וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו, וָמֵת.22 And we said unto my lord: The lad cannot leave his father; for if he should leave his father, his father would die.

and then:
ל  וְעַתָּה, כְּבֹאִי אֶל-עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי, וְהַנַּעַר, אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ.30 Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his soul is bound up with the lad's soul;
לא  וְהָיָה, כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי-אֵין הַנַּעַר--וָמֵת; וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת-שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ, בְּיָגוֹן--שְׁאֹלָה.31 it will come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die; and thy servants will bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave.

If so, obviously Yaakov is alive. So why should Yosef ask?

I've heard / thought of a few answers to this question.

1) Yosef does not believe Yehuda. Perhaps all along, the brothers were misleading him.

[I find this unlikely. This is the newfangled "deep" reading that attributes falsehood to some statements, and disbelief in reception of those statements.

Besides, there are ways of ensuring truth in those you interrogate. My suspicion is that, where they said 'we are brothers, twelve sons of one father, and not spies', and so on, this was the result of separate interrogations, and their stories all matched up.]

2) This was a challenge: You said that the loss of this ben zekunim would trigger Yaakov's death. Well, I am Yosef, the ben zekunim of my father, and I disappeared. Is my father still alive?

This would either challenge Yehuda's / Yaakov's exaggeration (unlikely), or would be the ultimate in rebuke -- why did you not think of this when you sold me?

[In terms of challenging the extremity of the statement, I don't find it likely. After all, part of the reason Binyamin is so important is that וְאָחִיו מֵת, וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ. This was not true of Yosef.

It could well be a rebuke. Indeed, that the brothers could not answer, וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו, is a good support for this reading.]

3) It is an expression of wonder and gladness. He is so happy that he will be reunited with his father. Recall that this was a time of extreme emotion, where he could barely contain himself. He twice excused himself to regain his composure.

4) Related to suggestion 3, don't look behind, look ahead. Yosef has to say these words, because of the wonderful parallel it makes with Yaakov's reaction:
כח  וַיֹּאמֶר, יִשְׂרָאֵל, רַב עוֹד-יוֹסֵף בְּנִי, חָי; אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ, בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.28 And Israel said: 'It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die.'

5) It is an introduction to Yosef's decision to send a message to his father. Thus:
ט  מַהֲרוּ, וַעֲלוּ אֶל-אָבִי, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָיו כֹּה אָמַר בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף, שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל-מִצְרָיִם; רְדָה אֵלַי, אַל-תַּעֲמֹד.9 Hasten ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him: Thus saith thy son Joseph: God hath made me lord of all Egypt; come down unto me, tarry not.

2. Why did he never get in touch with them?
In terms of why Yosef never got in touch with them, this is something entirely omitted from the Biblical narrative. It is not an instance of conflicting pesukim which we are trying to make sense of. We are not told, and any speculation is just that, speculation. It is making up an answer.

One could theorize that he thought his father was not still alive, and so did not wish to reunite with his brothers. One could theorize that he thought Yaakov was in on the plot (Emek Chevron) since, after all, his father did send him. One could theorize that he thought he would be unwelcome, or that they would try to further kill him. One could theorize that he was extremely busy, and caught up in the moment -- a new job, a new Egyptian family -- and so neglected this pursuit for the while.

Or, one could theorize (with Biblical support) that Yosef recognized the hand of God in all of this, in his meteoric rise to power, from the depths of the pit. He knew of the famine, and figured his brothers would have to come to him. Plus, he believed that his childhood dreams were prophetic. Therefore, he figured that this was the way in which Hashem was going to bring his brothers to bow down to him. (A related theory, that he believed his role in this was to bring about the fulfillment of those dreams.) Contacting his family would cut that short.

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