Creating Family Peace

Joseph serves as a model of creating opportunities for repentance and forgiveness.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Joseph interprets Pharaoh's two dreams and predicts seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. (41:1-32)

  • Pharaoh places Joseph in charge of food collection and distribution. (41:37-49)

  • Joseph marries Asenath, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. (41:50-52)

  • When Joseph's brothers come to Egypt to buy food during the famine, Joseph accuses them of spying. He holds Simeon hostage while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan to retrieve Benjamin for him. (42:3-42:38)

  • The brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin and for more food. Joseph continues the test, this time falsely accusing Benjamin of stealing and declaring that Benjamin must remain his slave. (43:1-44:17)

Focal Point

For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, "You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness."

But they said to him, "No, my lord! Truly, your servants have come to procure food. We are all of us sons of the same man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies."

And he said to them, "No, you have come to see the land in its nakedness."

And they replied, "We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more."

But Joseph said to them, "It is just as I have told you: You are spies. By this you shall be put to the test: Unless your youngest brother comes here, by Pharaoh, you shall not depart from this place. Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain confined, that your words may be put to the test whether there is truth in you. Else, by Pharaoh, you are nothing but spies. And he confined them in the guardhouse for three days (Genesis 42:8-17).

Your Guide

Why does Joseph accuse his brothers of being spies?

Can you imagine a different way that Joseph may have chosen to test his brothers in order to determine if they had repented?

Why did Joseph confine all his brothers for three days? What result was Joseph expecting?

If you were Joseph, how would you have responded to your brothers' arrival in Egypt?

By the Way…

"Joseph's brothers went down." [Genesis 42:3] Scripture should have said, "Jacob's sons." Why "Joseph's brothers?" Because in the beginning they did not treat him like a brother for they sold him into servitude, but in the end they regretted what they had done. Every day they would say, "When shall we be going down into Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?" And when their father told them to go down to Egypt, they were all as one in their resolve to bring him back (H. N. Bialik and Y. H. Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends, p. 53).

[The] Ramban and others (including the famous novelist Thomas Mann in his Joseph and His Brothers) conclude that Joseph acted in accordance with the path marked out for him by Providence in his dreams. He did not feel himself free to do as he liked but considered that he was destined to play the part of savior and leader of his family. This had been the significance of the dream… (Nehama Leibowitz in Studies in Bereshit Genesis, Jerusalem: Alpha Press, 1981).

Some of our Sages hold that Joseph's repeated accusations were intended to confuse his brothers. Surely they must have known of the extraordinary fact that "a young Hebrew slave" had become viceroy of the country. Joseph might therefore have been afraid that they would recognize him as their brother. But by directing violent accusations against them, he reduced such speculation to naught and from then on was able to carry out the plan he had concerning his brothers (R. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Mesorah Publications, 1994).

The purpose of Joseph's elaborate ruse is not to torment or embarrass his brothers but to see whether they indeed had changed. Repentance [t'shuvah] is more than regret. It includes finding oneself in a similar situation and responding differently. Joseph needs to know whether the brothers will leave Simeon and/or Benjamin to languish in prison, as they once had abandoned him (David Lieber, Etz Hayim, The Jewish Publication Society, 2001).

[Joseph] was inclined to make himself known to them as their brother, but an angel appeared unto him, the same that had brought him from Shechem to his brethren at Dothan, and spoke, saying, "These came hither with intent to kill thee" (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society, 1969, vol. II, p. 82).

Am I my brother's keeper (Genesis 4:9)?

Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity (Psalms 133:1).

Your Guide

Which text best explains Joseph's initial treatment of his brothers? Why?

If you accept the Ramban's explanation as cited by Nehama Leibowitz, do you think that Joseph could have devised a different plan that would have yielded the same results without tormenting his brothers? Please describe it.

By citing the angel's reappearance to Joseph in Egypt, what is Ginzberg suggesting?

What do the sibling relationships in the text teach us about familial relationships?

D'var Torah

Although God is in control of life and death, we determine how we will relate to one another. Joseph's initial meeting with his brothers might suggest that he was punishing them for their previous actions. Joseph's challenge was to determine how to reunite the family, thus enabling all its members to continue serving God together. Joseph had to create a situation that would bond the family both physically and spiritually.

Through his elaborate scheme, Joseph gives his brothers the opportunity to prove to themselves that they have done t'shuvah--that they are indeed men of virtue. Joseph, who long ago realized that his brothers were only following God's decree, has to help them forgive themselves. Only then will they all be able to work together as an am kadosh, a holy people. We can use this lesson to repair tears within struggling families, whether our own or those of our friends.

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Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum

Bruce Greenbaum is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel Valley, CA.