“Why Did Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, Never Contact His Aged Father?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph, the poor Hebrew slave boy who had been imprisoned on false charges for thirteen years, is brought before Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s esoteric dreams.

Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt is meteoric. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, he is appointed to the second most powerful position in Egypt and is given authority over all of Egypt. He marries an Egyptian wife, who gives birth to two children, Ephraim and Menashe.

In anticipation of Joseph’s prediction of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, an order is issued to collect one fifth of the produce of Egypt, and to store the food for the coming years of famine. When the years of famine arrive, Joseph assumes the role of personally dispensing and distributing the food.

Due to the famine, which affects Canaan as well, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food for their families. In this manner is Joseph’s dream of the brothers bowing down to him fulfilled. Joseph, who has been separated from his family for twenty-two years, confronts his brothers and accuses them of being spies. The parasha ends with the brothers’ second visit, and Joseph accusing his brother, Benjamin, of having stolen his chalice.

Seven years of plenty and two years of famine have passed, yet Joseph, the supreme authority in Egypt, never contacts his family in Canaan. In fact, Joseph seems to show no interest in being reunited with his family or even visiting his aged father, who has, for twenty-two years, been mourning for Joseph, thinking that his beloved son was dead.

It could be that Joseph was simply overwhelmed by the demands and responsibilities of his executive position, and could not spare the time to visit his father in Canaan. But, Joseph certainly could have sent a personal messenger to his aged father. Knowing of the impending famine, he should have warned his family, and informed them that there was grain to be had in Egypt.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Joseph not contacting his family was the fact that Joseph felt deeply betrayed by them. Not only did his brothers sell him as a slave, but due to his father’s “irresponsible” parenting, Jacob’s household became highly dysfunctional, leading to the brother’s unbridled animosity toward Joseph. And just as Judah had previously fallen out with his brothers (Genesis 38), wanting nothing to do with his family after they accused him of being responsible for the sale of Joseph, so too did Joseph feel only ill will toward his family, and had little desire to reunite with them.

The textural proof of Joseph’s ill will toward his family is to be found in the name that Joseph gives his oldest son, Menashe. Genesis 41:51, וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה,  כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱ-לֹקִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי, And Joseph named the firstborn, Menashe, for, “G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.” The name Ephraim, which means that G-d has made Joseph fruitful in the land of his suffering, also suggests that has found the fulfilment in Egypt that had eluded him when he was with his family in Canaan.

The idea that Joseph was just so angry with his brothers and his father, is seen by the sages as not enough of a reason for Joseph to completely disconnect from his family. They therefore state that when the brothers sold Joseph, they made a solemn ban against divulging what they had done to Joseph. Some of the commentators suggest that Joseph too, was forbidden, against his will, to contact his father or to disclose his whereabouts. The reason for this ban was to allow for the fulfillment of the providential prophecy that the Children of Israel will be exiled to Egypt. It is also argued that Joseph had to be separated from his father so that Jacob could be punished, measure-for-measure, for having abandoned his own parents for twenty-two years.

Apparently, in sync with the sages, the Ha’amek Davar suggests that the real reason that Joseph never took steps to contact his father was so that his dreams would be fulfilled. Joseph always regarded his dreams as a form of prophecy, and saw it as his duty to make certain that they come to fruition.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, in his erudite new publication, A Synagogue Companion, cites a number of other cogent reasons for Joseph’s failure to “call home.” Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid, maintains that Joseph never contacted his father so that family unity could be preserved. After all, revealing himself to his family would have destroyed the family structure forever, as Jacob would have learned the full extent of the perfidy committed by his sons against Joseph.

The Ramban rejects the idea that Joseph was forced to swear, as the reason for never contacting his father. The Ramban argues that in addition to wanting to see his original dreams realized and his brothers prostrated before him, Joseph also wanted to see if his brothers had sincerely repented for what they had done to him. Joseph needed to create a scenario in which Benjamin would be held hostage, in order to subject his brothers to a loyalty test for Benjamin, a test that they had miserably failed with Joseph himself.

The Abarbanel takes issue with the Ramban’s suggestion, stating that Joseph, an all-powerful ruler, hardly needed Benjamin to come bow down before him. Rather, it was necessary for Joseph to exact measure-for-measure punishment upon his brothers. Joseph needed to be cruel to his brothers, just as his brothers had been cruel to him. Joseph accused his brothers of being spies because they had accused him of spreading bad reports. Joseph throws his brother Simeon into prison, because his brothers had thrown him into a pit. Benjamin was to be taken as a slave, because his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. All these individual actions had to be fulfilled, in order to ensure that the brothers were truly penitent.

All this would not have been possible had Joseph contacted his father.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins this Tuesday night, December 16th, 2014, and continues for eight days, through Wednesday evening, December 24th, 2014.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!