“Joseph Calms His Brothers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers.

Scripture reports that Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of those who stood before him, and called out to remove everyone. Only he, alone with his brothers, were there when he revealed his identity.

Genesis 45:3, describes the highly charged moment: וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו, And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.

The Egyptian tyrant who now stands before Jacob’s sons accusing them of being spies, who arrested their brother, Simeon, and had just accused their youngest brother Benjamin of being a thief, this cruel and inhuman monster who threatens now to turn them all into slaves, suddenly reveals himself as their brother! Not only their brother, but their long-lost brother, whom they had sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites twenty-two years ago! It is certainly no surprise that they were in shock and speechless.

Joseph asks his brothers to come near and to approach him, and once again identifies himself by saying, Genesis 45:4, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” There is no question that the brothers at this moment were convinced that all is lost, and that the guillotine blade was about to drop. There really was no hope. Their evil deed had finally been publicly exposed, and they would have to pay with their lives.

Instead, their brother Joseph’s tone changes, as he generously and gently says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם, “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”

Joseph explains, Genesis 45:6-8, “For those two years has the hunger years been in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. Thus G-d has sent me ahead of you, to ensure your survival in the land, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. And now: It was not you who sent me here, but G-d; He has made me father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt.”

While Scripture describes this most dramatic moment, we can not really know the thoughts in Joseph’s head or the brothers’ feelings at this time. Fortunately, the The Malbim, one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Bible, fills in the details with rich commentary.

The Malbim sees the scene as follows: Joseph could no longer hold himself in from the emotional encounter with his brothers, who were standing before him. He demands that all the people leave the room when he reveals himself. Joseph began to cry so loudly, that all of Egypt, even Pharaoh’s entourage heard his crying. The brothers had no idea why Joseph was crying or why he cleared the room. The brothers were astounded, frozen in fear, fearful of vengeance. In fact, when Joseph then asked if his father was still alive, they assumed that Joseph meant, is my father still alive after all the grief that you had caused him by selling me?

Joseph reveals himself, but the brothers do not respond. The Malbim suggests that Joseph was under the impression that the brothers did not answer him because either they did not believe that he was really Joseph, or because they still harbored hatred for him, and regretted only that they had sold him rather than killed him, allowing him to become an authority over them. A third possibility is that they were truly regretful and penitent for the evil that they had done to their brother.

The Malbim explains that Joseph responds to all three possibilities. He reveals himself by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.” Only Joseph could have known that fact. There was no longer any room for doubt that the man standing before them was their long-lost brother Joseph.

Assuming that they were regretful for the terrible deed that they committed, Joseph says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, “Do not be distressed.” To address the possibility that they still hated him, Joseph says to them, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, “Do not reproach yourselves for not having finished me off. For if you are fearful that I will avenge you, do not be afraid, for G-d sent me here to save people. Your resentment of my elevated royal status will also be of no benefit, for clearly you have no ability to cause me harm. Furthermore, there is good reason to abandon your feelings of vengeance, because your lives, the lives of your families and the lives of the entire world depend upon me, since there are five more years of famine and the world must be saved.”

When Joseph tells his brothers, that “it was not you who sent me here, but G-d,” the Malbim sees in Joseph’s words to his brothers a powerful theological lesson to them regarding Divine intervention.

Joseph boldly tells his brothers that they are not responsible for their actions, because everything that had occurred was Divinely ordained. He is, in effect, saying to his brothers: “You were like vessels in the hands of G-d, and the resulting sale benefitted all of humankind. If you are saddened by the fact that you became the Divine instrument to allow this evil to occur, there is no reason to be sad, because you did me and the world the greatest favor. Look at my position in the kingdom of Pharaoh.”

The Malbim offers a powerful parable of a man who threw his neighbor into the ocean. Although the victim could have drowned, he survives and in the process finds a most precious stone in the sea. Says Joseph, “As a result of your actions, I have become, אָב לְפַרְעֹה, A father who offers advice to Pharaoh (through the dream), וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ, in charge of his entire palace, and eventually becoming, וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, the ruler of all of Egypt. This is hardly a reason to be sad.”

The traumatized brothers are persuaded by Joseph to calm down. Only then, does Joseph advise his brothers to hurry back to Canaan, to tell their grieving father, Jacob, Genesis 45:9, that “G-d has made me [Joseph] master of all of Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay.”

The Malbim in his inimitable style, analyzes every word carefully to reveal the intimate secrets of the text and the true inner feelings of the Biblical characters.

While we usually gloss over these details when reading these narratives, the Malbim finds treasures in every single word. How fortunate are we to be able to share in his insights.

May you be blessed.