“Why Did You Treat Me So Badly?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is appointed Viceroy of all Egypt. The downtrodden slave boy rises from prison to the peak of power in the great land of Egypt.

Joseph’s meteoric ascent enables him to implement his advice to Pharaoh to save Egypt from the impending famine by storing food for the years of famine, during the years of plenty. As a result, only the land of Egypt had food, and Jacob, who dwells with his family in Canaan, is forced to send his sons to Egypt to purchase grain to keep their families alive.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them, but they fail to recognize him. He accuses them of being spies, holds Simeon as a hostage and insists that they bring their youngest brother to Egypt to prove their innocence.

When the food that they had purchased from their first journey was entirely consumed, Jacob urges his sons to go down to Egypt once again, to purchase more food. Judah reminds his father that Joseph had demanded that their younger brother be brought down with them this time, and that they cannot go down without Benjamin.

Jacob (scripture uses the name “Israel”) gets very upset and blurts out to them, in Genesis 43:6, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתֶם לִי, לְהַגִּיד לָאִישׁ, הַעוֹד לָכֶם אָח , “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man that you have another brother?” The brothers reply, (Genesis 43:7), הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע כִּי יֹאמַר, הוֹרִידוּ אֶת אֲחִיכֶם , “Could we possibly have known that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down?’”

The commentators explain that whenever Jacob assumes the role of patriarch of the Jewish nation, scripture recognizes him as “Israel,” rather than “Jacob.” It is also common for scripture to use the name “Israel” when Jacob refers to something pertaining to the destiny of the Jewish people, rather than something that applies only to Jacob and his family.

In this instance, Jacob is teaching a profound lesson to the younger and the future generations, therefore, in keeping with his patriarchal role, Jacob is called “Israel.” The Ha’amek Davar says, that we learn from Jacob that whenever Jews are forced to appear before leaders who are not friendly to them, they should be circumspect in what information they offer, never revealing more than they have to. Since the seemingly unfriendly viceroy had not specifically asked them about any additional brothers, they should not have offered the information and instead, should have simply told Joseph that, “We, your servants, are 12 brothers.”

Both the Akeidat Yitzchak and the Abarbanel, say, that in this manner, the brothers defended themselves against Jacob’s claim that they had spoken out of turn.  And, that while Joseph had thoroughly questioned them, there was nothing in his manner that led them to believe they should be measured in their response.

The Midrash in Bereishith Rabbah 91, offers a remarkable interpretation for this verse. The Midrash says that, in his entire life, Jacob never uttered anything in vain–except in this particular instance. In response to Jacob’s outburst, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I [G-d] am working to make his son into the ruler of Egypt, and he says, ‘Why are you treating me badly?’”

Rabbi Nison Alpert, in his comments on the weekly portion, asked: What was it that Jacob said that deserved such a stinging reproach from G-d? How would Jacob know that Joseph was still alive? After all, he was led to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal? Nevertheless, the Midrash argues that Jacob’s words: “Why did you treat me badly?” were inappropriate.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that perhaps one reason why G-d rebukes Jacob is because more than two decades had already elapsed since Joseph vanished, and by this time, the Al-mighty assumed that Jacob had reconciled his grief over the loss of his child, and come to terms with G-d’s intentions. Perhaps when Jacob first saw the bloody coat that he thought belonged to his son, he would have been justified in his anger at his other children, and cry out, “Why did you treat me so badly?” But, not so many years later.

Jacob had already had sufficient time to work out his grief, but he did not, and that is why G-d was angry.

Perhaps acknowledging that parents never truly overcome their grief over a deceased or missing child, Rabbi Alpert suggests another way of looking at G-d’s rebuke. G-d is not really rebuking Jacob. In fact, the Midrash is actually praising Jacob, saying that throughout his entire life, Jacob had never spoken a single word in vain other than in this instance. Can you imagine never second-guessing G-d, except for one instance? Never wondering about why G-d overlooks certain actions and punishes other actions? Why G-d brings calamity upon the world?

Both of these messages are applicable to contemporary Jewish life today. We are well familiar with the rabbinic statement (Brachot 60b) that, כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד , that everything that G-d does, is always for the good.

The Jewish people from time immemorial have witnessed evil upon evil, yet they still survive. Not only survive, but thrive, like never before. There is 3,300 years of empirical evidence that G-d has watched over and protected His people. Yet, because of the intensity of the evil that Jews experience, it is hard to conclude that it is all for the good, even though we believe that ultimately it will all prove to be good.

A significant lesson to be gleaned from this parasha and others is the importance of being optimistic even in the face of extraordinary reasons to feel otherwise. Jews must look for, and aspire for daylight, even though it is now frighteningly dark outside. We must trust in G-d’s loving-kindness, even though we are in pain.

There is a wonderful statement of faith that is quite popular in Israel today, that states, מִי שֶׁמַּאֲמִין לֹא מְפַחֵד , one who has faith is never afraid. This powerful message is communicated to us through the story of father Jacob and his sons. Even when Jews think that we are being treated badly, we should know that the Al-mighty always has our back, and that ultimately a bright day will dawn. No matter the circumstance, we must boldly proclaim, that the sun will definitely shine again, and shower good and blessing upon all G-d’s children.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through nightfall on  Monday evening, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.