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08.12.2015 17:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parshat  genesis  miketz  

Brotherly Relations

Relations between siblings, as reflected in Genesis, can be described as an ellipse with its two foci being the following two verses:

1.        Genesis 4:9:  “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’  And he said, ‘I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

2.       Genesis 37:16:  “He [Joseph] answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’”

The first focal point expresses maximal self-centeredness and lack of responsibility, coupled with cruelty that seeks to cast off any obligation towards the other, even if it be one’s brother.  Cain’s response portrays a world in which a person acts solely on the basis of personal motivations, with no responsibility based either on faith and religion or on the dictates of society and morality; a cold and alienated world in which the individual seeks to satisfy his own desires, without any limitation.

The second focal point is the inverse of the first.  It expresses a sense of loyalty and of moral and emotional obligation, of brotherly love and a sense of family belonging with all that is entailed thereby, a world in which individuals are prepared to risk their lives for others, and certainly for a brother.

The sibling relations described in Genesis revolve around the tension between these two points.  In this context we shall try to understand Joseph’s behavior when he meets his brothers after twenty-two years of cruel separation.

Joseph sought to establish whether the brothers had indeed put aside their hatred towards Rachel’s children and would relate to Benjamin without any feelings of jealousy, despite their father’s favoritism towards Joseph and Benjamin, the sons of his beloved wife Rachel.  This notion reverberates in the following two commentaries:

  1. Abarbanel[1] on the text at hand:

For all the trial to which Joseph subjected his brothers, accusing them of being spies, he still had some doubt in his heart whether they felt love towards Benjamin or whether they still hated the sons of his mother Rachel.  Therefore he desired to put Benjamin himself to the test with his goblet, to see whether they would try to save him.  At the same time he feared lest his brothers think he must die, for Benjamin stole the goblet just as Rachel stole her father’s idols, and perhaps on this account they might say, “the soul that sinned must die,” and hence would not stand up for him with all their might, not because of hating him but because of being ashamed about the act.

Therefore Joseph commanded that the money paid for the grain be placed along with the goblet, and likewise with all their money, so that they would recognize thereby that Benjamin had not been wicked and at fault, but rather that it was a plot on the part of the master.  Recognizing this, if they showed compassion towards him and tried to keep him from being enslaved, then he would know that they love him.   Joseph would then see them as having fully repented and would make himself known to them and deal kindly with them, as indeed he did.

  1. Akedat Yitzhak,[2] Parashat Mi-Ketz, chapter thirty:

It appears that Joseph’s intention from the outset had been to examine them to see whether they still hated him or whether they regretted their actions, and he saw no way of doing this other than testing them with regard to the brother born to his mother, to see what they would do when they beheld him in straights or danger.  To this end, he immediately devised the plot of the goblet; the difficulty was that Benjamin was not there, so he had to devise other plots to get them to bring him down there.

Both commentators note the goal Joseph set himself:  to establish whether the brothers had successfully moved from the negative focus of the ellipse of brotherly relations to the positive focus, or whether they were still caught up in their hatred stemming jealousy of Rachel’s children.

In the first stage Joseph took them into custody on the claim that they were spies, and for three days he left them to wonder about the behavior of the vizier who was treating them differently from the rest of the masses of people who came to buy food, especially after he decided to commute their punishment and put their claimed innocence to the test by releasing one of them to go bring the younger brother whom they claimed had remained with their father.

This action attests to kindness not at all typical of an omnipotent tyrant.  Moreover, he even saw to it that they take back “rations for their starving households,” for he declared himself to be “a G-d-fearing man” (Gen. 42:18).  Therefore, they came to think that this misfortune had befallen them on account of the way they had treated Joseph,[3] as it says further on:

They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us.”

The connection between the behavior of the vizier of Egypt and their sin of selling Joseph is also expressed in the verse which follows, when their oldest brother Reuben, calls them to task for their sin:  “Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, ‘Did I not tell you, “Do no wrong to the boy”?  But you paid no heed.  Now comes the reckoning for his blood.’”

Joseph heard by means of the interpreter in their midst about the brothers’ moral wrestling, but was not yet convinced the process of moving from the focus of hatred to the focus of true brotherhood in the ellipse of relations in his brothers’ family had been completed.  He would be convinced only if the brothers succeeded in bringing his full brother Benjamin, born to his mother, down to Egypt and returned him safely home, notwithstanding the excessive affection his father shows for him as the child of his old age and the only one left him from his beloved wife Rachel.

After the brothers managed to persuade their father to let Benjamin come down to Egypt with him, Joseph planned to put them to a hard test, the test of the “pilfered goblet,” placed in Benjamin’s pack.  Will the brothers still show solidarity and brotherly love, or will jealousy overrule their sense of morality this time, too?

The passages from the midrash which follow shed light on the process undergone by the brothers.

Stage 1Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed.):[4]

They rent their clothes—the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them:  You caused your father to rend his clothes for something totally gratuitous; so, too, you shall rend your clothes for something gratuitous…and they stood around slapping Benjamin on his shoulders and saying to him:  You thief, born to a thief mother, how you have shamed us!  Your mother’s son are you, for your mother shamed our father thus [=when she stole the idols of her father Laban] and for those blows they gave him on his shoulders Benjamin was granted the gift of having the Divine Presence dwell between his shoulders, as it is written (Deut. 33:12), “Ever does He protect him, as he rests between His shoulders.”

At the second stage, however, when the vizier pronounced the fate of the thief, their response changed, as presented in Yalkut Shimoni:[5]

Joseph said to them:  Heaven forfend that I should suspect you, but this young man [Benjamin] is suspected of having stolen it in order to find out through divination what happened to his brother: “He in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave.”  At that moment all the tribes turned away from him.  Who stood up to him?  The guarantor [Judah], for it is written, “Then Judah went up to him.”

Rabbi Abraham Seba, however, author of Tzror ha-Mor,[6] in his commentary on this passage cites an anonymous midrash claiming that there was a third stage prior to Judah’s intervention:

The goblet having been found in Benjamin’s sack, the brothers began looking at one another and saying:  thief, born to a thieving mother, and they wanted to go and leave him there.  And he swore on the life of and Joseph’s father … that he did not steal it.  Nevertheless, they all wanted to go and said:  It is best that he be sorry by himself.  But Judah, who had taken responsibility for him, would not let them leave.

So we see that the Sages did not think the brothers had fully repented during their first imprisonment.  This was only their initial response, only the first stages of acknowledging their wrongdoing and confessing, as outlined by Maimonides in the process of repentance.  We have seen that even the first stage, abandoning sinful ways, left something to be desired in their implementation, as evidenced by their reaction to Benjamin being framed for stealing Joseph’s goblet.

Joseph wanted to make sure or assist the brothers in completing the process of repentance, to firmly imprint in them the stage of learning for the future, and thus to make the transition to the positive focus of the ellipse:  brotherly love.

This stage will be described in the coming weekly readings.

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