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Yosef’s Interpretations and His Aim in the Encounter with His Brothers

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In loving memory of my parents: Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and
Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z”l
  1. Why did Pharaoh reject the interpretations of his magicians?

The world of dreams was an area in which the magicians of Egypt were familiar and fairly proficient. Pharaoh summoned them because interpreting dreams was their job. Why, then, was not one of them able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream?

Chazal deduce from the wording of the verse, “but there was none that could interpret them for Pharaoh” (41:8), that the magicians did propose interpretations, but Pharaoh was not satisfied with them; they did not reassure him. Rashi explains (Bereishit 41:8):

There were some who “interpreted them,” but not “for Pharaoh.” They did not make sense to him and they did not set his worried mind at ease. They said, “You will beget seven daughters, and you will bury seven daughters.”

What is the fundamental difference between the interpretations proposed by the magicians and those offered by Yosef?

The magicians perceived Pharaoh’s dreams as allusions to what would happen to him personally and to his family, and thus raised the sort of issues that occupy most people most of the time: one’s health, his fate, the health and success of his children, his family, his fortune, his future. Pharaoh, however, sensed that his dreams concerned his position as ruler of Egypt.

The royal butler, in mentioning Yosef as a possible consultant, recounted how Yosef had foretold Pharaoh’s decisions as a ruler. Yosef, even while in prison, had known whom Pharaoh would restore to his previous position and whom he would hang. Thus, Pharaoh warmed to Yosef even before meeting him, since Yosef had viewed Pharaoh in his capacity as ruler of Egypt.

When Yosef was brought before Pharaoh and actually proposed his interpretation, it also held another attraction. Yosef did not merely interpret the dreams, but also went on immediately to propose a course of action.

This is what appealed to Pharaoh most of all and what caused him to appoint Yosef as his deputy. This is what rulers throughout the world do all the time: they put people who propose ideas to the test, to see whether they are able to execute the plans that they are proposing.

  1. Prophecies of the forefathers vs. Yosef’s wisdom in interpreting dreams

In none of Yosef’s dreams – neither in Cana’an nor in Egypt – is there any mention of God’s word. Nowhere do we find, “God said to Yosef…” or any similar expression. Thus, the Torah draws a clear distinction between the forefathers and Yosef. The forefathers were prophets; God spoke to them, sometimes in dreams (such as the dream of the ladder experienced by Yaakov). Yosef, in contrast, was not a prophet, but rather a man of wisdom and an interpreter of dreams, who understood God’s will from these interpretations.

It is interesting to note that the distinction between the forefathers’ prophecy and Yosef’s interpretation of dreams parallels the transition from the influence of Aram Naharayim to the influence of Egypt. As long as the forefathers remain on the Charan-Eretz Yisrael axis, God communicates with them through explicit prophecy. From the moment they are exposed to Egyptian culture, we find Yosef as an interpreter of dreams; he is not a prophet. Only Moshe and Aharon, who bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, will receive direct prophecy from God – not with the purpose of integration in Egypt, but rather in order to depart. Yaakov experiences one last prophecy on his way down to Egypt (Bereishit 46), but Yosef, who will take care of his father and his brothers within Egypt itself, experiences no prophetic revelation, not even in his youth in Cana’an.

Yosef only dreams and interprets. This is God’s word as extrapolated through wisdom, the wisdom of Yosef to Pharaoh. In Chazal’s terminology, this is “ruach ha-kodesh” (Divine inspiration), and according to the Rambam (Guide of the Perplexed 2:45), it is the second level of revelation (higher than “ruach gevura,” but lower than explicit prophecy).

  1. Did Yosef act to bring his dreams to realization?

Yosef is “the governor of the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land” (Bereishit 42:6). In other words, he sold food not only to the Egyptians, but also to people from the surrounding areas, and it is possible that he assumed direct oversight of anyone who came from outside of Egypt.

Was he waiting for Yaakov’s sons to arrive? Did he know that they would come? Did he plan his strategy in advance, in accordance with his childhood dreams?

The verses would seem to suggest the opposite. Yosef recalls his dreams only when he sees his brothers for the first time:

And Yosef knew his brothers, but they did not know him. And Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them… (42:8-9)

Yosef’s brothers – ten of them – come to buy food in Egypt, and they bow down to the ground before Yosef. Does this represent the fulfillment of his dream of the sheaves? The answer seems to be a clear yes. The dream of the sheaves, we recall, did not specify any particular number:

“And behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright, and behold, your sheaves stood round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.” (37:7)

This is exactly what happens when the brothers come and bow before Yosef’s “sheaves;” they come before him in submission to buy food. And indeed, this is how Rashi understands the scene, and Ramban offered the same interpretation before he moved to Eretz Yisrael.[1]

When the brothers come a second time, together with Binyamin, such that they now number eleven, the second dream is fulfilled – the dream of the sun and moon and eleven stars.

But upon reaching Eretz Yisrael, Ramban suddenly confronted a great question. Having now experienced at first hand the short distance between Egypt and Eretz Yisrael, he raised a problem that had not previously occurred to him:

But we have to ask, after Yosef had been in Egypt for many years, and held a senior position in the household of an important Egyptian nobleman – how could he not have sent a note to his father, to inform him and to comfort him? For the distance from Egypt to Chevron is [a journey of] about six days; even if it were a journey of a year, it would have been proper for him to notify him, out of respect for his father, who would have paid a huge ransom to redeem him. (Ramban, Bereishit 42:9)

Ramban is in fact questioning how he himself never asked this question while still in Spain (“a journey of a year”), such that it occurred to him only once he had moved to Eretz Yisrael.

His answer to the question views Yosef’s dream as a binding prophecy:

But [Yosef] saw that having his brothers prostrate themselves before him, along with his father and all of his descendants, could never happen while in their land. And so he awaited his arrival in Egypt, to behold his great prosperity there, and especially after he heard Pharaoh’s dream, which made it clear to him that all of them would come there and all of his dreams would be fulfilled. (ad loc.)

At this point, Ramban changed his original commentary, now arguing that in the first visit to Egypt, the brothers should have numbered eleven, and therefore the first dream had not yet been fulfilled until they came a second time together with Binyamin. The second dream, which included the sun and moon and the stars, was fulfilled only when Yaakov came down to Egypt.

Ramban then adds:

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 prolonged 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. (ibid.)

Many commentators, especially Abravanel and the Akeidat Yitzchak, are still troubled by Yosef’s behavior. Abravanel writes:

Why did Yosef hide his identity from his brothers, and speak harshly to them? Was this not an unwarranted transgression, representing revenge and spite?… How, then, [could he treat in this way] these hungry people who had journeyed far from their country, while their children and babies were waiting for them, and especially his elderly father, consumed with unhappiness and full of worry? How could he not have compassion on him, heaping additional anguish upon him by placing Shimon under arrest? (Abravanel, end of ch. 41, question 4)

The Akeidat Yitzchak explicitly questions Ramban’s interpretation:

I wonder at Ramban’s suggestion that [Yosef] acted in order to bring about the realization of his dreams. For of what benefit would it be to him if they were realized? And even if there was some benefit to him, he should not have sinned towards his father. As for the dreams, He Who gives dreams provides for their interpretation. It seems greatly foolish for a person to try to bring his dreams to realization, for they are things that happen without the subject’s conscious choice! (Akeidat Yitzchak, end of sha’ar 59)

Clearly, Abravanel and the Ba’al Ha-Akeida do not view Yosef’s dreams as binding prophecy. As Yirmiyahu puts it:

The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat, says the Lord?” (Yirmiyahu 23:28)

The chaff is merely the outer covering of the wheat kernel; similarly, a dream is the outer covering of prophecy.

This comparison is treated at greater length in the gemara:

R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai: Just as there can be no wheat without chaff, so there can be no dream without elements that are meaningless. R. Berakhia said: While part of a dream might be realized, it will not be realized in full. From where do we learn this? From Yosef, as it is written, ‘And behold, the sun and moon…’ – but by this time his mother [Rachel] was already no longer alive. (Berakhot 55a)

The prophet tells us that a dream is the “outer covering” of prophecy, just as the chaff is the outer covering of the wheat. A true prophet is able to discard the chaff while retaining the wheat, in order to produce fine flour for bread.

The muddling of these different levels is dangerous. When anyone with some degree of Divine inspiration is viewed as a “prophet” or “seer,” we have no way of ascertaining God’s message with clarity. While there is no need to deny that there are people who possess a more profound level of perception, we should not be led to conclude that they are prophets.

  1. Why did Yosef not reveal his identity after hearing his brothers’ regret?

The alternative interpretation proposed by Abravanel and the Ba’al Ha-Akeida suggests that Yosef’s strategy was aimed at ascertaining whether his brothers had repented. If they had not undergone a profound and thorough process of teshuva, Yosef would not be able to reveal his identity without reopening the old wound in Yaakov’s household.

When the brothers find themselves caught up in this entanglement, they remember the sale of Yosef. Yosef remembers the brothers when they bow down before him to the ground; they recall him when he takes one of them to remain behind in the Egyptian jail. They express their remorse:

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.” (42:21)

The expression “to one another” (literally, “[each] man to his brother”) had appeared when they previously sought to kill him, but on the advice of Reuven (who sought to save him) threw him instead into the pit (37:19-20). Only now do we discover that Yosef cried out and they refused to hear him. Only now do we discover that Reuven had begged them, “Do not sin against the child,” but they would not listen.

The description here complements the story of the sale as described in chapter 37, hinting that it was Shimon (the brother selected by Yosef for incarceration) who had proposed killing Yosef (Rashi 42:24).

All of this places a question mark over the interpretation proposed by Abravanel and the Ba’al Ha-Akeida concerning Yosef’s behavior. Why did Yosef continue to act towards his brothers as a cold, distant ruler, and why did he send no message to his father after he had heard the explicit and heartfelt expression of their remorse and regret?

Abravanel offers this answer:

Despite the whole test to which Yosef had subjected his brothers through the accusation of spying, there still remained a question in his mind as to whether they felt love towards Binyamin, or whether they still hated the sons of Rachel, his mother. Therefore, he wanted to subject Binyamin specifically to the test of the goblet, to see whether they would exert themselves to save him… and Yosef would then consider them complete ba’alei teshuva (penitents), and he would make himself known to them and treat them well – as indeed he did. (Abravanel ad loc.)

This explanation is entirely unsatisfactory. Yosef had heard with his own ears what the brothers said among themselves. Their remorse was devoid of any element of fear or ingratiation towards the ruler; it was an expression of true teshuva. Indeed, Yosef understood that they regretted what they had done, and he turned away from them to weep – but still restrained himself. Why?

Admittedly, in Yehuda’s speech to Yosef, he adds another level to this teshuva, expressing his willingness to serve (Yosef!) as a slave instead of Binyamin. Unquestionably, this reflects Yehuda’s atonement for the sale of Yosef. But this atonement is effected between Yehuda and God, not between Yehuda and Yosef. Thus, our question remains.

  1. Why did Yosef not reveal his identity once his dreams were fulfilled?

Had Yosef wept and reunited with his brothers when they arrived with Binyamin, the story would have been quite simple. Both dreams had now been fulfilled, Yosef had heard his brothers’ regret, he had set his eyes upon Binyamin, and the time would now have come to set aside his disguise and show his brothers that the ruler of Egypt was in fact the long-lost Yosef. This would have been the time to explain how the money had been returned to their sacks and how it was that he had been able to seat them at the meal in the proper order of their ages, to recount all that had happened to him during the intervening years, and also to hear what had happened to them.

But this is not the story that the Torah tells us.

Yosef again hurries to his private chamber and weeps after seeing Binyamin, but once again he restrains himself and plans the scheme involving the goblet. He does not suffice with the brothers bowing before him in Egypt, as he had prophesied in the dream of the sheaves. He does not suffice with them bowing before him as a ruler, in his own palace, even when they are eleven “stars.” He does not suffice even with their bowing in the name of their elderly father, whom they refer to as “your servant”:

And they said, “Your servant, our father, is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. (43:28)

Both of Yosef’s dreams have been fulfilled in the most complete way possible, and he has heard their sincere regret. Thus, both explanations for his behavior (realization of the dreams or unity among the brothers) appear questionable. What, then, is Yosef’s motive? Why does he trick his brothers and then accuse them of theft? Does he really plan on keeping Binyamin in Egypt, or is Yehuda’s speech what he is after?

To my mind, it seems clear that Yosef meant to keep Binyamin in Egypt and to disclose his identity to him alone. Then, from what Binyamin would tell him, he would learn how matters stood between the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel, and whether he could, at some future time, re-establish contact with his father.

All opinions agree that something deep in Yosef’s psyche stopped him from revealing himself to his brothers at this point, and that the meaning of this internal block becomes clear only in the wake of Yehuda’s speech, which introduces Parashat Vayigash.

  1. What was Yehuda hoping to achieve, and what did Yosef discover, quite by accident?

Yehuda, summoning all his charisma, stands before the Egyptian ruler and puts his all into the fight for Binyamin, his brother, and for Yaakov, his father. As he speaks, he reveals what has been happening in Yaakov’s household since Yosef disappeared. At first he says:

“… his [Binyamin’s] brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him.” (44:20)

In other words, Binyamin alone is left of Rachel’s beloved sons. Afterwards, Yehuda (son of Leah!) recounts, in his father’s name, that Rachel was Yaakov’s beloved wife:

“And your servant, my father, said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons, and the one went out from me, and I said, ‘Surely he is torn in pieces, and I have not seen him since.’” (44:27-28)

Only now does Yosef hear that his father has mourned for him all this time, under the erroneous impression that Yosef had been devoured by a wild animal.

All at once the barrier of misunderstanding that has surrounded Yosef for twenty-two years falls away. Yosef had not known that his brothers slaughtered a wild goat and dipped his coat in its blood, so as to deceive their father. All he knows is that his beloved father sent him to where his brothers were shepherding, and when he reached them, they stripped him of his coat and threw him into a pit, following which he was sold and taken to Egypt.

For many long years, Yosef has been asking himself: Where is my father? Where are my brothers? How is it that no one has come looking for me all these years? Yosef has lived under the misunderstanding that he was sent away from his father’s house (like Hagar and her son, and like the sons of Ketura) – either because the sons of Leah seized dominance, or because of a Divine command, as in the case of Hagar. This consciousness is expressed quite clearly in the name that Yosef gives to his firstborn son, Menashe:

“… for God has caused me to forget (nashani) all my toil and all my father’s house.” (41:51)

R. Yaakov Medan proposes that the syntax of the verse be understood differently: “God has caused me to forget all my toil and all [the toil of] my father’s house” – in other words, all the troubles that I experienced while in my father’s house.[2] However, to my mind the verse should be understood as it is written: “God has caused me to forget my father’s house” – whether because of Yosef’s sense of pride, engendered by his dreams, or because of the tension between the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel.

The righteous Yosef blames neither his father nor his brothers, but views all that has happened to him as the work of God.

This answers Ramban’s question as to why Yosef never sent messengers to his father. Someone who believes that he was thrown out of his father’s house will not later send his father messengers. Yosef remembers his father’s house with love and pain, and Yaakov’s image and his influence still stand him in good stead when he is faced with the temptations of Potifar’s wife. But he cannot understand how he came to be cast out of his father’s house and into a pit, and sold as a slave, and how no one has ever come to find him.

Ramban’s question is now inverted. It is Yosef who asks why his father never sent messengers to find him. The answer he arrives at, in his righteousness, is that this was the will of God. And this faith sustains him to the end of his life (45:8, 50:20).

Thus, Yehuda becomes the unwitting messenger of Providence, revealing Yosef’s error to him. All of a sudden, Yosef understands, “I was never banished! My father believed that I had been devoured, and he has mourned me all these years.”

The shock of this discovery shatters Yosef’s wall of alienation:

Then Yosef could not restrain himself [any longer]… (45:1).

When Yehuda says, “his [Yaakov’s] soul is bound up with his [Binyamin’s] soul,” he effectively binds Yosef’s soul anew with the soul of his father.

g. “Is my father still alive?”

Yosef returns to himself, to his brothers, and to his father:

“… Does my father yet live [and love…]?”

Formally, he knows the answer, for his brothers have already told him. But up until now they have spoken in terms of “your servant our father,” with no hint of the profound bond between them. This first thought that Yosef expresses, after making his identity known, testifies to the profound inner rupture has been based on the (erroneous) thought that he was banished from his father’s house.[3]

Lest anyone ask how it could be possible for a son to think such thoughts about his father, we might point out that Avraham loved Yishmael, but nevertheless, at God’s command, he banished Hagar and her son.

From this point onwards and for all generations, anyone who thinks he has been expelled from Am Yisrael is simply mistaken, and the mistake will eventually be revealed. All twelve of Yaakov’s sons are a single nation, a single family. Our forefather Yaakov lives on; Am Yisrael lives on.

  1. Binyamin as mediator between the brothers

This momentous reunion between Yosef and Binyamin, the reunion of the sons of Rachel, succeeded in uniting the other brothers around them, too. Binyamin becomes the bridge between Yosef and the other brothers, with Yehuda serving as their representative. Only after the great embrace and weeping of Yosef and Binyamin comes the embrace with all the others, and they begin to talk among themselves (45:14-15). A midrash Chazal (cited by Rashi), with great sensitivity, detects in the intense weeping of the two brothers on each other’s necks a hint at the future catastrophes of destruction and exile. In fact, based on the principle that “the deeds of the forefathers are a sign for their descendants,” the inheritance of Binyamin (Yehoshua 18) should be viewed as an inheritance bridging between Yosef and Yehuda, and it therefore has the capacity to unit all the tribes of Israel. This was the essence of King David’s great endeavor in Jerusalem.

Binyamin, who is positioned in our parasha in between the self-sacrifice of Yehuda and Yosef, ultimately becomes the factor that unites Yehuda and Yisrael, and the family as a whole.

Translated by Kaeren Fish




[1]  Rav Mordechai Sabato showed me a section of the commentary on the Torah that Ramban wrote while still living in Spain, before the addenda and amendments that he made in Eretz Yisrael, and his interpretation is similar to that of Rashi.

[2]  His dissenting article appears in my book, Pirkei Ha-Avot, pp. 181-214.

[3]  A few years ago, a story surfaced about an Israeli child who was kidnapped and held in captivity in a dungeon in Chechnya for the purposes of ransom. His father went to superhuman lengths to find him. When he finally reached his son, the child’s first words were, “Dad, where were you for so long?” This is the inner reality of a child who is cast into a pit and cannot understand why his father is not searching for him.