|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta-MY BROTHER: MENACHEM MENDEL SHLOMO BEN CHAYA ROCHEL
-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
מִקֵּץ ● Mikeitz
● Why did Yosef put on a vicious charade and play mind games with his brothers? Why did Yosef put on a Lavan impression? ●
“Yosef HaTzaddik & Grandpa Lavan”
Many questions are asked concerning Yosef’s strange conduct at the moment he saw his brothers for the first time in years after becoming the viceroy of Egypt.1 Indeed, even the simplest read of the story itself needs some further elaboration. Some of the issues classically raised are obvious and have many famous answers, while others are less often discussed but can use our attention. For now, we’ll discuss two of the obvious questions and one question which perhaps you have never considered.
Why didn’t Yosef write home?
One popular question that is asked is why Yosef didn’t simply write home. Yosef hadn’t seen his father in years by that point. And so, even if, at that point, he wasn’t on the greatest of terms with his brothers per se, which is also not clear from text, Yosef still must have loved his suffering father. If for whatever reason, he did not want to reveal himself to his brothers, perhaps he could have at least sent a private message to Yaakov to let him know where he was and how he was doing. He was the second most powerful man in the world. It should not have been that difficult to pull off. Why didn’t Yosef send any message home to Yaakov?
Why did Yosef put on a charade for his brothers?
Another question one might have is why Yosef did not immediately reveal his identity to his brothers. The Torah describes how Yosef went out of his way to conceal his identity and act like a stranger before them.2 For the entire duration of Parshas Mikeitz through the beginning of Parshas Vayigash, Yosef put on a charade for his brothers, playing mind games with and manipulating them until ultimately, they conceded to bring his brother Binyamin down to Egypt. And the question is why Yosef put them through all of this, and what he was trying to accomplish.
Indeed, as was mentioned, it is not immediately clear from the text how Yosef felt about seeing his brothers. But, it shouldn’t really have mattered. Because, on the one hand, if he was happy to see them again, which is understandably difficult to believe considering their past, then Yosef should have certainly revealed his identity and reunited with his family then and there. And yet, if he was harboring ill feelings towards his brothers and perhaps wanted to exact vengeance against them or at least demonstrate how wrong they were, he probably should have also revealed himself.
Consider how the Torah informs us that Yosef recalled his dreams which symbolically depicted his brothers bowing before him.3 Now that his brothers were kneeling before his majesty in real time4, it was the golden opportunity for Yosef to really stick it to his brothers. By letting the cat out of the bag and telling them who he was, he could have verified that which his brothers doubted, that he and his dreams were correct all along. He could have humbled them, perhaps the way they would have deserved.
But, Yosef, after all, was a Tzaddik, and as such, it seems that although he was not necessarily thrilled to see his brothers, he was not seeking vengeance either. Then, what exactly was Yosef seeking? What kind of terms was Yosef personally on with his brothers, at least from his own standpoint?
Why did Yosef mimic Lavan?
Perhaps you noticed this final observation when you learned Parshas Mikeitz and you were bothered by the question, and perhaps it went over your head every single year and you are only thinking about it now. But, it is quite fascinating to note that when Yosef devised his scheme to frame Binyamin for having stolen his goblet, Yosef’s rhetoric and, really, the entire setting he arranged parallels the story of Yosef’s grandfather and great uncle Lavan when Yosef’s mother Rochel Imeinu seized his Teraphim-idols in Parshas Vayeitzei.5
Consider how in both stories, there is an object, supposedly containing the powers of divination, that was apparently stolen.6 Both Yosef and Lavan ultimately pursued the family on the road, berated the protagonists, accusing them of theft7; in the Lavan story, Lavan had accused Yaakov Avinu, while in the Yosef story, Yosef had accused Yaakov’s sons, his brothers.7 In both stories, the accused parties would categorically deny the charge and even condemn the true culprit to death.8 Interestingly, in the Lavan story, the culprit is his daughter Rochel, while in the Yosef story, the framed culprit is Rochel’s son Binyamin. This connection was already noted by the Midrash which suggests that when Binyamin was framed, his brothers denounced him, calling him a “Ganava Bar Genavta”-“thief, the son of a thief,” referencing the time that his mother Rochel had stolen from Lavan.9
The question is what Yosef was trying to accomplish with this whole production. It almost seems like Yosef was auditioning for the role of the villainous Lavan. He had the script and inflection down to a T. But, why was all of this happening? Why did the Torah apparently set up this parallel between the Yosef narrative and the earlier story of Lavan, of all people? Could the evil attributes of Lavan have possibly infiltrated the Tzaddik we know Yosef to be? Was Yosef maliciously toying with his brothers, Chas V’Shalom?
Ramban’s Prophecy Approach
Returning to our original question as to why Yosef never sent any messages home to Yaakov, there is a famous approach suggested by Ramban (and others), and that is that, indeed, Yosef had no ill intentions towards anyone, neither his brothers nor his father. Indeed, Yosef would have been sinning to continue withholding the information of his survival from Yaakov and allowing Yaakov any further feelings of sorrow and anguish. However, Yosef understood the dreams of his youth as prophecy from G-d, and as such, he saw an obligation to assure that his prophetic dreams come true.10
Ramban thus answers both of the earlier questions, namely, why Yosef didn’t write home, and why he put on the charade for his brothers. Assuming that he had an obligation to arrange a situation in which his dreams would be fulfilled, namely, one where his entire family would bow before him, Yosef could not simply blow his cover and potentially foil the opportunity to fulfill his dreams. He needed to assure that his brothers would return, and do so with Binyamin. Once the dreams were fulfilled, Yosef could reveal his identity and immediately send word home, which Yosef ultimately did.
This reading is particularly compelling considering how the Torah specified that Yosef recalled the dreams, and in the same breath, told us that Yosef put on the charade.3 The charade was put on for the sake of those dreams.
Now, one of the fundamental difficulties that is raised with this approach, however, is the question as to why Yosef would have had an obligation to assure that his dreams are fulfilled? Moreover, why would Yosef think he had such an obligatgion? We don’t seem to have any precedent for such a concept, of manually navigating a situation so that a prophecy will be fulfilled. Abarbanel, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, and Kli Yakar among others argue that, on the contrary, if prophecy is the will of G-d, than presumably, G-d will allow and arrange that the prophecy come to fruition in any event.
Maybe, we can suggest that dreams are different. Maybe, Yosef just felt that prophecy fulfillment was a personal obligation. Who knows? As to why the Torah mention how Yosef recalled the dreams just before telling us in the same verse that he put on the charade, perhaps, one can suggest simply that the Torah sought to teach us that despite the juicy opportunity to reveal his identity and reveal to his brothers how wrong they were about his dreams, he, instead, humbly kept his identity secret until it was necessary to reveal it later.
With its substance and minor difficulties, that is the approach offered by Ramban.
The “What did Yosef know?” Approach
In a previous discussion we referenced an approach to the Yosef story which speculated the possibility that Yosef didn’t know for sure what was happening at home, and that Yosef suspected that his father might have possibly been in on the plot to send him away from the family.11 Again, this is not to say that Yosef knew anything with one hundred percent certainty. All he knew for sure was that his father sent him on what looked like a death mission, to go find his brothers who hated him when Yaakov himself had many servants who could have done so. For all he knew, maybe, he was being rejected by his father.
Moreover, as for Ramban’s argument that Yosef would have been sinning to his father if he’d continue the charade, one has wonder: Did Yosef know that his father was suffering? Ramban must be presupposing that yes, Yosef had to know. But, is there an alternative possibility? If Yosef perhaps was unaware of Yaakov’s state, then it would certainly relieve him of guilt in this area. According to this approach, we can suggest that at the very least, Yosef needed more information before he could reveal his identity. He needed to ask all of the necessary questions specifically to find out about how his father was doing. Indeed, when Yehudah later revealed the pain that Yaakov was in over losing a son, Yosef would have had a clearer picture of the story, and indeed, it was at that point when Yosef ultimately revealed his identity to them at the end of the story.12
However, the intrinsic difficulty with this approach is that it seems somewhat implausible that Yosef could go so quickly from being the favorite son to the ousted son. It was obvious to everyone that Yaakov loved Yosef most. Why would Yaakov have suddenly rejected him? Perhaps, one can argue for this approach that due to recent developments, Yosef’s conduct demonstrated something so fundamentally flawed that he would have become disqualified and have to to be sent away from the family. Maybe, relating a dream indicative of his father bowing to him was over the line. Maybe, his false allegations against his brothers were the deal breaker. But even so, Yosef continued to believe that an injustice was committed against him, so it is difficult to suppose that he would have believed that Yaakov was the mastermind behind a ruling which Yosef himself could not accept. In any event, perhaps the suggestion could use some tailoring, but that is the overall construct of second approach.
The “Litmus Test” Approach
Perhaps we can adopt some of assumptions of the “What did Yosef know?” approach as introductory points to this final approach. With that, perhaps we can suggest that, indeed, Yosef was simply not sure what his father was going through. Perhaps, to his knowledge, his father thought he was dead and was “consoled” of anguish, even if he was still sad. Maybe, for whatever reason, Yosef thought that he was disqualified from the family. Or maybe, he simply had no clue whether or not his father was even alive and was not yet sure if he could trust what his brothers were reporting to him when they thought he was an unfamiliar, viceroy of Egypt.
But, why would Yosef keep up the charade? What was up his sleeve? What information was he looking for?
R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that if one looks at the entire story from beginning to end, the story itself reveals Yosef’s intentions throughout. The whole time, Yosef was testing the waters, or more specifically, testing his brothers. We asked earlier what kind of terms Yosef was on with his brothers, or how he felt about them at this point, seeing them after so many years. Would Yosef harbor anything against them or would he act benevolently toward them and overlook the sins of their past?
However, perhaps, this question was Yosef’s question exactly! Indeed, Yosef had not seen them for many years. And even if we assume that because Yosef was a Tzaddik that had personally gotten over the trauma he had been put through and was prepared to forgive his brothers, Yosef still had not yet seen any basis to assume that his brothers themselves had done any kind of Teshuvah, or repentance for what they had done to him. R’ Hirsch explains that by putting on his charade, Yosef would have the opportunity two accomplish two goals, (1) to determine and perhaps change his opinion of his brothers, and (2) to determine whether or not his brothers have changed their opinion of him.
Moreover, Kli Yakar points out that Yosef’s entire charade would enable his brothers to achieve atonement for their sins. For example, when Yosef needed a hostage, he selected Shim’on whom, according to Chazal, was the one who suggested to Levi that Yosef be killed and actively cast him into the pit.13 In a similar vein, Abarbanel and Malbim point out that when Yosef returned the brothers’ money they spent on their sustenance to their sacks to frighten them, Yosef specifically placed Levi’s money at the top so that Levi would be distressed first as he was Shim’on’s accomplice.14 They elaborate that Yosef acted, not out of angry vengeance, but out of pure justice, in attempt to purge his brothers of their sin by punishing them measure for measure.
Indeed, all of the above would explain why Yosef wanted Binyamin brought down and why Yosef would devise a situation in which Binyamin’s life would be compromised before his brothers’ eyes. The brothers had already expressed their regret and remorse for the crime they had committed, and they did so, albeit unknowingly, in Yosef’s earshot.15 But, while remorse is certainly a prerequisite for repentance, for full Teshuvah to be achieved, one needs to find himself in the same exact situation as of the time he sinned, and still overcome the sin.16 Thus, if Yosef’s brothers, sons of Leah, were able to find an injustice in him, a son of Rochel, and incorrectly sell him away out of their animosity toward him, Yosef needed to know, by now, if they would repeat the same to be done to another Ben Rochel. Having Binyamin framed for a crime and threatened to be taken as a slave would serve as the ultimate litmus test.
Yosef HaTzaddik vs. Grandpa Lavan
All of the above brings us back to the discussion of Yosef and his Great Uncle/Grandpa Lavan. Why was Yosef put on a Lavan impression, imitating his wicked grandfather’s demeanor, against his brothers? Why would the Torah set up a narrative specifically linking Yosef to Lavan? The association is almost haunting.
However, in order to understand the meaning of the connections between the Yosef story and the Lavan story, as we often try to do in our travels through the Chumash, we have to analyze these connections more thoroughly, and thereby note the key differences between them.
As was already mentioned, the theft in the Lavan story was legitimate, whereas the theft in the Yosef story was a scheme designed by Yosef himself while Lavan’s was not.6 Indeed, Binyamin never actually stole anything—the goblet was planted in his bag, while Rochel did in fact steal.17 And while Rochel wasn’t caught for actually stealing18, Binyamin was caught and framed for that crime.19
This next point of contrast is an interesting one. In the Lavan story, when Lavan ultimately found nothing of his in Yaakov’s tents, Yaakov would lash out at Lavan with a series of passionate, rhetorical questions, asserting his innocence and indicting Lavan for accusing him and yet, finding nothing of substance against Yaakov; “What is my transgression?! What is my sin that you have fervently pursued me?! When you rummaged through my articles, what did you find of all your household objects?!”20
Now, in the Yosef’s reenactment of the story, when Yosef found the goblet, Yehudah would proceed to deliver his own soliloquy in which he articulates a few of his own, emotional rhetorical questions. However, his questions were not challenging Yosef, nor asserting innocence on behalf of Binyamin, nor himself! His questions were rhetorical questions of confession, self-indictment, and utter admission to guilt; “What can we say to my master? What can we speak? And [with] what can we justify ourselves? G-d has found the iniquity of your servants. Behold, we are ready to be slaves to my master, both us and also the one with whom the goblet has been found.”21 (Additionally, notice the expression of “finding” which appears in both speeches.)
Through all of the key parallels and all of the key points of contrast which we have identified, we can suggest that Yosef and Lavan are made to look alike here to highlight an apparent mirror relationship they had. They were opposites. What is the message of their opposite relationship though? Is this just another good versus evil construct, or is there something more?
Another one of the key differences we mentioned was that Lavan’s object was really stolen from, while Yosef’s theft was staged. It was all an act. Playing with his brothers’ minds, manipulating his brothers, and making them feel guilt was all a part of the charade. Indeed, we’ve been saying for a while that Yosef was putting on an act—the entire Mikeitz is all a show. But, if you think about, this theme of “theatre” is actually another variable that Yosef and Lavan had in common. Yosef put on act for his brothers, but Lavan too put on an act, for all of the years Yaakov was in his home. Indeed, while Yosef was putting on the guise of someone evil, an enemy to his brothers, Lavan constantly put on the guise of a righteous person, an idea we’ve developed at length in earlier discussions.22
Both Yosef and Lavan played with the minds of their inferiors, trying to make them feel guilt. But, Lavan did that for a living, all while pretending to be a benevolent man who only had Yaakov’s best interests in mind. Whenever caught in any scheme, Lavan had a defense prepared in which he would work overtime to claim the moral high ground and almost convince you that he was right. But that was all an act. At the very end, Yaakov would respond to Lavan’s tirade with some words of his own and expose Lavan as the true crook he had been the entire time.
If the Lavan story with the stolen Teraphim would ultimately be the story that stripped Lavan of his façade and reveal his true, ugly colors and served as the beginning of the separation between Lavan and Yaakov, perhaps the Yosef’s mirror story with the planted goblet is meant to be understood as the removal of Yosef’s façade as the enemy of his brothers, revealing his brothers complete Teshuvah and Yosef’s longing to have peace with them. It would serve as the beginning of a reunion between Yosef and his brothers! Indeed, that was what the whole act was for, for that litmus test!
What emerges is that while Lavan’s drive all along was his pure selfishness, Yosef’s drive was the selfless desire for peace with the brothers who wronged him. Lavan put on a righteous façade to exonerate himself and condemn Yaakov, while Yosef put on a malicious façade to exonerate his brothers! Chazal teach us that Lavan sought to “uproot everything” and destroy the entire Beis Yaakov, or the household of Yaakov.23 Indeed, with selfish motives, Lavan made his own daughters into rival wives of Yaakov creating tension and the roots of the family feud and sibling rivalry which would tear Yaakov’s family apart! Yosef was designing the circumstances for a mending of the family, a Teshuvah process which would generate new peace and harmony in Yaakov’s family. Thus, if Lavan’s goal was to selfishly destroy Beis Yaakov, Yosef’s goal was ultimately to selflessly restore Beis Yisrael!
A Dip into the Haftarah – Shlomo HaMelech and the Mystery Mother
With all the above, I want to direct our attention to the Haftarah of Parshas Mikeitz. Since Parshas Mikeitz almost always falls out on Shabbos Chanukah, the actual Haftarah for Parshas Mikeitz is replaced by that of “Shabbos Chanukah” (which is taken from Zechariah24). Mikeitz’s actual Haftarah is only read in the rare situation when Shabbos Chanukah falls out in the week of Parshas Vayeishev. For this reason, the Haftarah for Mikeitz is fascinatingly one of the mostly rarely read ones (if not the most).
Why is the Haftarah relevant for our discussion? The actual Haftarah for Parshas Mikeitz is taken from Melachim Aleph and it is the story of Shlomo HaMelech’s manifest wisdom in his ruling during the lawsuit of the two women disputing the custody a baby.25 Each woman was claiming that she was the true mother of the baby. What did Shlomo HaMelech do to determine the true mother? He devised a plan—a test, a charade—in which he put that baby in harm’s way, threatening to split the baby in half. Why did he do that? Because he was trying to see the truest form of motherly love and mercy come pouring out of one of these two women. That way, he would see where the real, unmistakable love was manifest. Wherever the true familial love would show itself, Shlomo would find a mother who is willing to sacrifice herself—her own custody of the child, for the sake of that child.
If one thinks about it, that was exactly what Yosef was doing in our story in Mikeitz. He threatened the baby of the family, Binyamin, to see if the true brotherly, familial connection would emerge. That was the basis for the charade. That was the basis for his Lavan impression, to find true yearning for reunion with and exoneration of his brothers, throughout years of a lawsuit he had against them! And when push came to shove, in the beginning of Parshas Vayigash, Yehudah would sacrifice himself in order to spare Binyamin. Yehudah would thereby demonstrate true repentance and brotherhood before Yosef!
In the end, with the combined efforts and of the mastermind actor in Yosef and the genuine stars in his brothers, the effects of Lavan’s selfishness would be reversed and the Beis Yisrael would undoubtedly be restored!
May we all be Zocheh to reverse the “Lavan effects” of familial strife by selflessly reuniting and restoring the Beis Yisrael and Hashem should remove His mask and reveal the Geulah, the final rededication of His Beis HaMikdash, and the coming Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos/Chanukah/Rosh Chodesh Teiveis!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Bereishis 42
- Bereishis 31
- 31:19 and 44:2
- 31:25-30 and 44:4-5
- 31:32 and 44:9
- Bereishis Rabbah 92:8
- This “prophecy” approach is also taken up by Ba’alei Tosafos (in Moshav Zikeinim) and the Vilna Gaon (in Aderes Eliyahu).
- See what I wrote earlier in this Sidrah; “Menasheh & Efrayim, Adjust & Thrive.”
- Bereishis 44
- Rashi to 42:24 citing Tanchuma Yashan 17
- Rashi to 42:25 citing Targum Yonasan
- Bereishis 42:21-22. Granted, the brothers realized they were speaking in Yosef’s earshot, but they thought he was an Egyptian who did not understand their language without his interpreter present. At the time of their private confession, his interpreter was apparently not present.
- Yoma 86B
- That Rochel actually did the deed might explain why she died by Yaakov’s curse, “prematurely,” in childbirth; See Bereishis 35:19.
- Bereishis 31:33-35
- See what I wrote earlier; “More Than Meets the Eye,” Parshas Chayei Sarah, and “It’s Not All White,” Parshas Vayeitzei.
- The Pesach Haggadah, the paragraph of “Arami Oveid Avi,” translated there as, “An Aramean [Lavan] sought to destroy my father.”
- Zechariah 2:14-4:7
- Melachim Aleph 3:15-4:1