Yosef, His Brothers, and the Descent to Egypt

  • Rav Michael Hattin








This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.


Yosef, His Brothers, and the Descent to Egypt

By Rav Michael Hattin





As Parashat Vayeshev opens, the focus of the Book of Bereishit converges on the story of Yaakov's children. Although Yaakov will continue to play an important role in the narrative, until his death at the conclusion of the Book, it is Yosef and his brothers who will henceforth occupy the central stage of the saga.  With a page evidently rent from the story of many families, the Torah describes in glaring and glowering terms the deep-seated animosity among those children that threatens to tear the nascent tribe apart. 


Ripped by dissension and driven by strife, the fabric of Yaakov's family almost unravels as the brothers quarrel among themselves for the coveted office of tribal leader.  Yosef, the most gifted and arrogant among them, the favorite of his father and the firstborn of the beloved Rachel, sees in his dreams intimations of greatness and leadership.  His bid, however, is cut short by his brother's jealousy; they contemplate fratricide, but in the end content themselves to sell him into slavery to distant Egypt.  There, after many setbacks and struggles, he realizes the prominence that he always knew would be his lot.  Eventually, Yosef comes to understand that the cause behind his accomplishments is not simply an accidental confluence of fortuitous events, nor the exclusive result of his own effort and skill, but rather bears the distinct imprint of Divine involvement for the realization of a more exalted purpose.


The Two Dimensions of the Narratives - #(1a) Yosef and Providence


When we embark on the study of the narratives of Yosef, we must bear in mind that there are in fact at least two distinct dimensions to the tale.  On the one hand, the Torah endeavors to describe the personal story of the protagonists, their foibles and faults, as well as their successes.  From this perspective, we see the primary story of Yosef's coming of age.  His immaturity, evident at the outset of the account as an extreme form of narcissism, causes the arousal of his brothers' ire.  Catapulted to a faraway land by their menacing machinations, alone and penniless, Yosef unexpectedly finds himself in the service of Potiphar, Pharaoh's minister. 


Showing himself to be a talented and industrious servant, Yosef quickly rises through the ranks to eventually assume responsibility for all of Potiphar's affairs.  Flushed with success, Yosef erroneously believes that he has been the exclusive author of his own achievements. When the attempts of the wife of Potiphar to seduce the dashing administrator fail, she falsely accuses Yosef of impropriety. Quickly, his fortunes are reversed as his master summarily casts him into prison.  There, condemned to an uncertain future of perhaps permanent incarceration, Yosef begins to ponder, for the first time, the course of his life.  From the experience of imprisonment in that dark dungeon, helpless and hopeless, the first glimmer of an idea of a Higher Providence enters his mind.  Slowly, the nebulous notion takes shape, until Yosef is able to formulate for himself with startling conviction that ever since he first dreamt of sheaves and stars, of dominion and rule, God has steered his steps so that he could fulfil his as-yet indeterminate destiny.


Once in possession of this remarkable insight, the route out of prison is a conceptually short but chronologically prolonged one. Unexpectedly, two of Pharaoh's servants, the butler and the baker, are cast into prison, and Yosef is ordered by the warden to attend to them.  The two, one night, have disturbing dreams and Yosef offers an interpretation that proves to be precisely correct.  Pharaoh soon exonerates the butler, just as Yosef had forecast, but the butler forgets Yosef's kindness.  It is not until two more years elapse, when troubling inexplicable images upsets the sleep of Pharaoh himself, that the butler remembers Yosef's unusual proficiency and recounts it to Pharaoh.  Quickly, he is fetched from prison, offers a most plausible reading of the dreams, and is promptly appointed as Viceroy!  The personal dimension of this unfolding series of events is quite evident, for it encapsulates Yosef's long and turbulent struggle to achieve trust in God as he comes to recognize His guiding hand.


#(1b) The Brothers and 'Teshuva'


Parallel to this story is the secondary strand of the brothers' 'teshuva,' or repentance.  Initially, we are introduced to their jealous rage and unfeeling cruelty, as they first cast Yosef into the pit and then sell him into slavery.  Having committed the treacherous deed, they proceed to deceive their aged father Yaakov into believing that a wild beast has consumed Yosef.  Rationalization yields to sublimation, as the brothers bury the painful memory of their diabolical deed under successive layers of self-denial. 


In the meantime, famine strikes Canaan and the surrounding lands, just as Yosef had foretold Pharaoh.  Incapable of facing the truth that they have in all probability caused Yosef's untimely death, the prospect of descending to Egypt (the scene of the crime) in order to purchase grain, fills the brothers with dread.  But go they must, there to stand before the Viceroy to request provender.  Yosef, clothed in royal attire, immediately recognizes his brothers, but they fail to recognize him.  Able to ascertain that they have never confronted their act of twenty-two years earlier, Yosef sets into motion a complex orchestration of events that forces the brothers to relive the crime.  This time, it is Binyamin the youngest who is cast as Yaakov's favorite, whom the brothers must defend and protect rather than surrender to the tyrannical Viceroy's clutches.  In the end, the brothers are finally able to express sincere and complete contrition, and, neatly closing the circle of their lives, Yosef reveals to them his true identity. 


The Two Parallel Tracks of Yosef's Realization, and the Brothers' Teshuva


It is striking indeed that here, Yosef's role is to impel their act of self-realization by synthesizing a series of episodes that for the brothers is at first incomprehensible, but in hindsight is perfectly lucid.  Their initial maltreatment at the Viceroy's hands, his unreasonable demands to deliver Binyamin and the unjust act of their imprisonment, his taking of Shimon as a hostage and the unexpected discovery of their returned money, are all cause for apprehension.  As the nightmare unfolds, the brothers search in vain for a meaning behind their unreasonable fate, until their collective memory is finally jolted, and thoughts of their lost brother Yosef flood into their minds.  When he reveals his true identity, all of their doubts, misgivings, and uncertainties melt away, and the true purpose and meaning of their tribulations at his guiding hands emerges. 


In quite similar fashion, we traced above the process of Yosef's spiritual maturation, in the course of which God had painstakingly stripped away the strata of Yosef's complacency and shallowness to reveal to him the blinding truth of His overarching Providence.  Suddenly, all of Yosef's tribulations, from the time that he had been unceremoniously sold at the hands of his brothers, to the unjust accusation and his extended imprisonment by Potiphar, became comprehensible links in the chain of God's involvement.  Here too, a revelation of sorts takes place, for in the aftermath of that blinding realization, Yosef is divinely inspired to interpret dreams.


In both instances, the account of Yosef and the account of his brothers, it is the personal element that is highlighted, as the Torah presents us with two fundamental insights: (1) God is directly and intimately involved in our lives and guides us towards a purpose, and (2) we are capable of overcoming even heinous mistakes, so long as we can experience true contrition and have sincere resolve to change our conduct.  Additionally, the two are shown to be interrelated, for the possibility of the second is often conditioned by the realization of the first.


The Two Dimensions of the Narratives - #(2) The Descent to Egypt


At the same time as the personal story of Yosef and his brothers unfolds, however, another epic takes shape.  This second dimension of the narratives has little to do with the personal development of the protagonists, for it actually transcends the lives of individuals.  It is the national story of the descent to Egypt and the beginning of the enslavement.  First introduced as a Divine fiat to Avraham at the Covenant Between the Pieces, it was there indicated to the trembling Patriarch in cryptic and ominous terms, as the darkness of night began to fall:


"You shall surely know that your descendents will be sojourners in a land not theirs, in servitude and oppression, for a period of four hundred years.  As for the nation that they shall serve, I will exact judgement from it.  Afterwards, they will go forth with great substance..." (Bereishit 15:13-14).


Yosef's descent to Egypt, his eventual rise to position of Viceroy, and the famine that envelops Canaan, are all indispensable elements in the emerging canvas of the family's relocation.  Although the brothers speak to Pharaoh of returning to Canaan after the drought, insightful Yaakov knows better.  The brothers and their children, and their children's children, will be long dead before they will emerge from Egyptian subjugation to head home.


The commentaries disagree concerning the initial justification for God's startling imposition of servitude, but in retrospect the purpose of the experience is self-evident.  It will not be, of course, as a family that Yaakov's descendents will return to their land, but rather as a nation.  Tempered in the crucible of oppression that will simultaneously dissolve noxious personal and tribal rivalries, a national character will be shaped.  Through the common experience of slavery, the descendents of Israel will first come to feel a shared destiny and future.  The formulation of a national purpose and set of objectives is only possible in the aftermath of overcoming national adversity, for the act of self-definition that must take place is always a response to externally imposed pressures.


Thus, the personal story of Yosef and his brothers is here transcended by the national story of Bnei Yisrael.  Significantly, however, it is through the agency of individuals and their autonomous choices that the national dimension is realized.  Again, the Torah emphasizes the direct involvement of God in the process. Although the protagonists remain blissfully unaware of the far-reaching consequences of their petty actions, those actions are being carefully combined and collected to together yield the desired outcome.  Each act is insignificant in its own right, but taken together, its indispensability for the unfolding of the process becomes evident.  It is as if the Torah allows us a privileged view behind the scenes of God's mysterious concealment in order to appreciate what is actually His comprehensive and active participation in the world.  If it is God's will that Yaakov and his descendents go down to Egypt for a purpose that He has determined, then they shall go, and no human act will be able to thwart that Divine design.


The Common Outline of the Two Dimensions


Considering the matter further, the two dimensions can be shown to share a common outline.  We may restate Yosef's personal saga as an archetypal Biblical theme of exile.  At home in Canaan but estranged from an awareness of God, Yosef must be driven to the distant shores of the Nile.  In that state of separation from homeland, and due to the difficult circumstances of his exile, he will rediscover the God of his ancestors, and come to finally comprehend his role in the world.  Eventually he will return to his homeland to be reunited with its earth.


Similarly, Yaakov's descendents will be cast out from Canaan by famine, and will find their new abode in Egypt.  There, they will suffer mightily until they cry out to the God of their ancestors to save them.  In the brick pits, the people of Israel will experience their first inkling of a national destiny and purpose, and this dawning realization will be key to their eventual exodus.


The themes of exile and redemption that permeate much of the Hebrew Bible are thus indicated to have a personal as well as a national scope. By drawing together the dual themes, the story of Yosef and his brothers as well as the story of Bnei Yisrael, our Parasha makes a conscious and profound statement concerning their common basis.  When stripped of their extraneous trappings and distilled to their basic, elemental essence, the twinned ideas of exile and redemption are shown to be binary facets of the same truth.  Geographical exile is only an expression in concrete reality of spiritual exile, of estrangement and distance from God and from the self.  The redemptive process, often triggered by the crisis of faith that 'exile' engenders, begins to unfold when the person or the people can confront their alienation from God and from the true meaning of their lives.  Redemption accelerates with the next phase of self-evaluation and re-definition, and culminates with the act of 'return' to God, oneself, and the Promised Land.


A Third Dimension to the Narratives – the Eschatological


As we have seen, the narratives of Yosef address not only the individual lives of the protagonists, but their national lives as well.  The themes of exile and redemption emerge as universal axioms that aptly describe our ongoing relationship with God.  The Ramban (13th century, Spain) takes matters a step further, for he sees in the story of Yosef a tale of cosmic proportions. 


"I have already mentioned that the story of Yaakov's descent to Egypt alludes to the third national exile, namely our present state in the aftermath of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.  We are still suffering the effects of this exile."


"Did not Yaakov's own children initiate the process by selling Yosef their brother?  It was acute famine that drove our Patriarch Yaakov down to Egypt, and he sought refuge with his beloved Yosef, whom Pharaoh treated as a son.  The family expected to return to Canaan at the conclusion of the drought, but they were not able to do so, and their state of exile continued for a lengthy period of time.  Eventually, Yaakov perished in Egypt, but his bones were taken back to Canaan, borne by an honor guard of Pharaoh's most important ministers."


"We, too, have been exiled by Rome, and our own brothers initiated the process.  It was the Jewish kings of the Hasmonean House that invited Roman intervention, as a result of a bloody dynastic struggle between brothers each vying for the throne.  Agrippas, the final king of the Second Temple Period, fled to Rome to enlist their help.  The city of Jerusalem was eventually besieged and famine struck down its inhabitants.  The resulting exile has stretched on interminably, for its end is nowhere in sight.  We, in the meantime, have become likened to the dead, for our bones have become dry and our hope is lost.  In the end, however, we will return to our land, and our oppressors shall perish.  May God establish our people so that we may again stand before Him..." (commentary to Bereishit 47:28).


Significantly, Ramban detects in the story of Yosef and his brothers, the enmity and cruelty that brought about his exile, our national story as well, for the Roman conquest was precipitated by divisiveness and hate.  The sojourn in of Yaakov in Egypt, oppressive and lengthy, foreshadowed not only the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael, but the long and bitter exile from which we have yet to completely emerge.  The lessons of the Ramban's remarkable insight are clear: the way back to the Promised Land will be barred as long as we are consumed by petty and profound animosities that cloud our vision, and refuse to let us see the meaning of our personal and national missions.  No amount of treaties and agreements can fill the empty void created by the willful neglect of our historical destiny and our precious legacy to become 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'  When Yosef is mature enough to realize that God's guidance has animated every one of his steps, he can no longer remain indifferent to that reality.  It transforms him, his objectives, and the history of his people forever.  


Shabbat Shalom