The Encounter Between Yosef and His Brothers

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish

“And Yosef saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them, and he said to them, ‘Where do you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan, to buy food.’ And Yosef knew his brothers, but they did not know him.

And Yosef remembered the dreams which he had dreamed about them, and he said to them, ‘You are spies; it is to see the nakedness of the land that you have come.’ And they said to him, ‘No, my lord; it is to buy food that your servants have come. We are all one man’s sons; we are true men, your servants are not spies.’ And he said to them, ‘No, but you have come to see the nakedness of the land.’

And they said, ‘Your servants are twelve; we are brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.’ And Yosef said to them, ‘That is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies. By this shall you be proved: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go out of here unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and you shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there is any truth in you, or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.’ And he put them all together into custody for three days.

And Yosef said to them on the third day, ‘This do, and live: I fear God; if you are true men, let one of your brothers be bound in the house of your confinement, and you go; carry corn for the famine of your houses, but bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and you shall not die.’” (Bereishit 42:7-20)

Let us address two questions regarding this encounter – one exegetical and one ethical.

The exegetical question is as follows: how are we to understand the logic of the exchange between Yosef, the forbidding ruler, and his brothers? Let us imagine for a moment the scene: ten men arrive with their donkeys and sacks and bundles of money, to buy produce in Egypt – as do many others from Canaan and elsewhere. Yosef, the ruler, meets with them and accuses them of spying. On what possible basis could he level this accusation? More puzzling still, the brothers, attempting to convince him of their innocence, tell him that in total they are twelve brothers, but only ten of them are there because one is gone, and the youngest has remained with their father. How is this in any way a refutation of the accusation? To top it all, Yosef then announces that he will accept their innocence only if they produce their youngest brother. But how would this represent proof that the brothers are not spies?

As to the moral question: what need is there for the whole complicated development of the plot until Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers? Is there any more to this drama than a quest for revenge? Why does Yosef not show compassion towards Yaakov and send word to him at the soonest opportunity that he is alive and waiting for him? Can we accept the explanation proposed by the commentators that Yosef does all this in order that Binyamin (as well as Yaakov) will come and bow before him, thereby realizing his second dream? Is the realization of a dream worth the profound anguish of an elderly father over a lost son? And what is so important about fulfilling the dreams, anyway?[1]

Let us begin by addressing the exegetical issue.

a. The exchange between Yosef and his brothers

In advising Pharaoh, Yosef did not suffice with the simple solution of saving food from the years of plenty to tide Egypt over the years of famine. Instead, he proposed a detailed and comprehensive social program. However, a plan for social revolution on this scale, including nationalization of all means of production as well as of the citizenry, along with seizing economic control of the entire region around Egypt, cannot be undertaken unless it is accompanied by a robust security program with an emphasis on preventative mechanisms. There must be careful investigation of any suspicion of internal or external subversion in Egypt – of anyone jealous of the king’s meteoric rise in riches and power, or opposing the nationalization program. Yosef deployed a preventive intelligence mechanism, and there must have been a great many people – especially among foreigners – who were suspected of espionage. They were probably all interrogated in great detail concerning their families.

It is quite possible – and Chazal raise this possibility in the midrash – that the brothers dispersed themselves among the marketplaces in Egypt, seeking Yosef, explaining that he was a free man who had been sold in error, and that they had to redeem him. This was a strange and suspicious story, especially within the environment of suspicion prevailing in Egypt, and people were desperate to obtain money in any way possible. These suspicious men were therefore questioned and they turned out to be brothers, from the same household. They appeared strong, healthy, and intelligent – and this, too, raised the Egyptian’s suspicions. During their questioning, the story of what they had done in Shekhem might have come out. The Egyptians would then have heard how two of the brothers massacred an entire city, with the others providing cover; there might even have been a battle of greater scope, involving the surrounding areas (as suggested by the midrash, s.v. ‘va-yis’u’). The fact that Yosef selects Shimon, of all the brothers, for incarceration, supports the possibility that the brothers’ interrogation included the episode of Shekhem.

Once the questioning concerning their possible espionage took this direction, the brothers would have been arrested and interrogated in great detail concerning their family – each on his own, to prevent any possibility of their coordinating their accounts. They had to tell the truth, but when it came to Yosef their story was not clear – “and one is gone” (42:13); “and his brother died” (44:20); there may also have been other versions. They were ashamed to admit that they had sold their brother. These evasions and contradictions intensified the suspicions of the Egyptians, and the need to locate the youngest “spy” who was apparently still “on the loose” now became urgent. It is possible that the brothers suffered beatings during their interrogation, when they failed to provide a clear answer to the question, “Where is Yosef?” Upon being led before the ruler, they were cognizant of their sin and of the wisdom of Reuven all those years previously:

“And they said to one another, ‘Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear, therefore this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuven answered them, saying, ‘Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child, and you would not hear? Therefore, behold, even his blood is required.’” (42:21-22)


Let us pause for a moment and consider an event that gave me a new understanding of our parasha.

Just before Purim, in the year 5738 (1978), on a Shabbat afternoon, eleven terrorists from Lebanon arrived on the beach of Ma’agan Michael, and seized control of a bus travelling on the Tel Aviv-Haifa road. After killing some passengers and picking up others along the way, they drove the bus to Gelilot junction. There the bus was stopped by security forces, whereupon the terrorists blew it up. Thirty-five adults and children lost their lives. During the questioning of the few passengers who survived, the reports were that there had been thirteen terrorists on the bus. Since the bodies of only eleven were found, it was immediately feared that the last two may have made their way to Tel Aviv, or to somewhere further north. Northern Tel Aviv and parts of Herzliya were placed in a state of emergency with military closure for 48 hours, while the IDF embarked on a hunt for the two missing terrorists. Only later was it established that only eleven terrorists had boarded the bus, and the closure was lifted.


The story in our parasha is on a similar scale. Ten of the twelve suspected spies were now in custody, and the security forces were conducting intensive searches for the two who had disappeared. Yosef, the ruler, extends a generous offer: He is willing to accept, for the meantime, that the eleventh brother is gone. But they must produce Binyamin, so as to reduce the danger from two “unknowns” to one. Moreover, if they bring the twelfth brother from his father’s house, this will lend credence to their garbled claim concerning the disappearance of the eleventh brother.

It must be emphasized that the claim that the brothers are spies is invented by Yosef in order to test them and ultimately to have them bring Binyamin to Egypt. However, his scheme must have some logical cover, so that the brothers will not suspect that some outside factor is involved in the mess in which they find themselves.[2]

b. The moral issue

What did Yosef hope to achieve by posing as a stranger to his brothers and by speaking negatively about them a second time – now accusing them of spying in Egypt? Is there any connection between his previous negative reports about them to his father, and his false accusations now? The answer may be yes.

For Yosef, the dreams experienced by Pharaoh’s servants, and even those of Pharaoh himself, are of lesser importance than his own dreams, which were an expression of Divine inspiration. A spirit of truth and unbounded inner power convinced him that his brothers and his father’s entire household would eventually bow before him.

But it makes no sense that Divine inspiration would prompt such dreams solely to satisfy someone’s desire for glory and power. Yosef’s dreams foretold leadership, not domination; they pointed to responsibility rather than prestige. Yosef knew this. His dreams came to him at a difficult time in Yaakov’s house, after Rachel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, had died, followed by other troubling events. They came after Yaakov’s leadership had suffered powerful setbacks and had begun to show cracks which were now beyond repair. The question of leadership of this family, which was destined to lead the world to the “way of God, to perform justice and righteousness,” was assuming fateful dimensions. Yosef’s youthful dreams pressed him to find a solution to this problem. Central events in the lives of his brothers appeared to him – rightly or wrongly – to be leading in the opposite direction:

“‘And Yosef brought negative reports of them’ – What did he say? R. Meir said, ‘He said, Your sons are suspected of [transgressing the prohibition of] eating a limb from a live animal.’ R. Shimon said, ‘They are casting their eyes upon the daughters of the land.’ R. Yehuda said, ‘They are showing disrespect towards the sons of the handmaids, calling them servants.’” (Bereishit Rabba 84 and Rashi 37:2)

Yosef knew that his brothers would take no heed of his admonishment, and so he turned to his father to rebuke them.

When Yosef was sold as a slave, his entire world fell apart: the dizzying transition from being his father’s favored son to being a slave in Egypt, cut off from his family and his people, represented an acute trauma. At the same time, he understood the extent to which the approach he had adopted until then had distanced him from his true goal – the leadership of his brothers and his father’s household to the path of God, to perform justice and righteousness. His negative reports to his father and his revelation of his dreams of leadership to his brothers had also driven them further away from the path of God.

Now, recalling his dreams, Yosef knew that their bowing before him was a means, not a substantive end. He knew that his responsibility and leadership required that he lead his brothers to recognize their wrongdoing in a way that was genuine and true – albeit painful – and to find the way to effect repair.

Yosef could have acted differently. Upon becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh, he could have sent a messenger to his father, informing him that he was now effectively the ruler of Egypt. This would have saved Yaakov eight years of anguish, and it would have saved the entire household the hardship of two years of famine. However, through this immediate alleviation of some suffering, Yosef would have turned the bleeding wound at the heart of Yaakov’s household – the wound of hatred between the sons of Rachel and the sons of Leah – into an incurable, irrecoverable rift. Yaakov would have lived the rest of his life with greater peace of mind, but Am Yisrael would have been built on shaky foundations that would have cast its eternal survival into doubt. The sin of Yosef’s sale had to be repaired. And no one could effect that repair but the perpetrators themselves, led by Yehuda, the architect of the plan.

Faced with his brothers, Yosef proposes – without explaining this – a difficult and painful path, but one that holds hope of reaching light at the end of the dark tunnel. This is the topic for a future shiur.



[1] Ramban (42:9) writes: “To my mind the matter is in the opposite order. The text suggests that when Yosef saw his brothers bowing before him, he remembered all his dreams about them and knew that not one of them had been fulfilled in this instance. For he knew from his interpretation that all his brothers were supposed to bow to him at the outset, from the first dream: ‘And behold, we were making sheaves’ – the word ‘we’ suggests that all eleven of the brothers are involved. The second time, the sun, moon, and eleven stars would bow to him – in accordance with the second dream. Since he did not see Binyamin among them, he thought up this plan to maneuver them into bringing his brother Binyamin to him, too, in order to fulfill the first dream first. Therefore he did not wish to tell them, ‘I am Yosef, your brother,’ and to say, ‘Hurry and bring up my father,’ and to send wagons, as he did the second time, for his father would unquestionably have come right away. After the first dream had been fulfilled, he instructed them [so as] to fulfill the second dream. Were this not the case, Yosef would have been guilty of a grave transgression in causing anguish to his father and bringing extended bereavement and mourning upon him, for Shimon and for himself. Even if his intention would have been to cause some anguish to his brothers, how could he not show compassion to his elderly father? [Evidently, then,] he did all of this in the proper time, so as to bring his dreams to realization, for he had known that they would come true.”

The Ba’al ha-Akeda questions this explanation: “He Who gives dreams provides for their interpretation. It seems greatly foolish for a person to try to bring his dreams to realization.” Abravanel criticizes sharply the possibility of justifying Yosef’s seeking of “revenge” on his brothers through his strategy.

[2]  Parenthetically, I would like to comment on the verse “And Yosef knew his brothers, but they did not know him.” Rashi (based on the Gemara in Ketubot 27b) comments: “‘And Yosef knew his brothers’ – because when he left them they were already bearded. ‘But they did not know him’ – for he left them without a beard, but now he had a beard.” The midrash captures with great precision the period of transition to manhood. When they were parted, after the sale of Yosef, Yosef was seventeen years old and beardless. His brothers were aged eighteen and older, and had already grown beards. Twenty-one years later, when they meet again, Yosef recognizes his brothers, who are still bearded, but they do not recognize him, because now he, too, has a beard.

What is this midrash trying to tell us? Pictures and engravings from the period in question show a clear difference between the descendants of Shem and the descendants of Cham. The children of Shem (including non-Jews) were bearded, while the children of Cham were clean-shaven (perhaps because of the hot temperatures in their countries). Yosef’s brothers failed to recognize him because he had grown a beard. He was bearded even though he was living in the land of the descendants of Cham, where everyone else was shaved. Even when achieving the highest office in the land, Yosef did not try to hide his identity and the fact that he was a descendant of Shem. He never forgot for a moment his Hebrew origins.