מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶֽם
and he said to them, “You are spies, – you have come to see the nakedness of the land.”
When Moses sent spies into the land of Israel, he asked them to determine the nature of the land itself …whether it is fat or lean, whether or not there are trees… (Num. 13:20). Because the children of Israel were about to initiate a long term relationship with the land of Israel, the two parties first needed to see each other. In this case, Joseph recognized that his brothers would set the stage for a long sojourn in the land of Egypt. They unknowingly had come to scout the land that they were destined to settle.
Joseph was sold as a slave to the chief executioner of Egypt so that he might witness firsthand the immorality of the Egyptians, and appreciate the contrast between his own values and those of his host. Joseph cryptically tells his brothers that to meet their destiny to become a “great nation” (goy gadol) they must similarly contrast their behavior with that of the Egyptians. Only through such observation could they eventually come to understand the edict, “Like the practices of the land of Egypt in which you once lived, you are not to do…” (Lev. 18:3)
The brothers protested that they were in Egypt merely to purchase food. They did not understand the subtext of Joseph’s words: that they were now unwitting scouts in preparation for a long sojourn in Egypt.
After the brothers briefly mentioned their missing brother, וְהָֽאֶחָד אֵינֶֽנּוּ, Joseph seized upon this reference. In his cryptic response, Joseph used the word ,הוּא referring to himself, when he asserted that they were spies: – הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵכֶם “He,” that very brother, is whom I am referring to. I was the first one sent here to scout the land, to discover the עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ. You are now destined to follow in my footsteps. (Moriah 1975)