Yosef and His Brothers: Lessons for Israel in Time of War

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Things are not always as they seem. In the story of Yosef in Bereshis, we discover Yosef’s unique approach to his brothers. Instead of quickly revealing himself to them, Yosef chooses a longer path. Until the revelation to his brothers, Yosef responds to them by accusing them of being spies, takes his brother Shimon into custody and, beyond that, frames Benjamin, his youngest brother, for theft. This raises the question: Why does Yosef, known as “Yosef the Tzadik,” behave in this way? Why, when he had reached a position of power, didn’t he simply contact his father Yacob to let him know he was alive as soon as he was in a position to do so? Why didn’t he reveal himself directly to his brothers?

The Ramban addresses this question and wonders why Yosef, who was now second in command in Egypt, didn’t simply send a message to his father to inform him that he was alive and well. The Ramban suggests that Yosef’s actions were driven by the desire to fulfill his dreams. Yosef planned the events to see if these dreams would come true. In the first dream, all eleven brothers were required to bow down to him, while in the second dream, the presence of his father was needed. Yosef’s actions were not driven by revenge but rather by the desire to fulfill the prophecies arising from these dreams.

כל הענינים האלה היו ביוסף מחכמתו בפתרון החלומות כי יש לתמוה אחר שעמד יוסף במצרים ימים רבים והיה פקיד ונגיד בבית שר גדול במצרים איך לא שלח כתב אחד לאביו להודיעו ולנחמו כי מצרים קרוב לחברון כששה ימים ואילו היה מהלך שנה היה ראוי להודיעו לכבוד אביו ……… וכל שכן אחרי ששמע חלום פרעה שנתברר לו כי יבאו כלם שמה ויתקיימו כל חלומותיו:
(רמב”ן על בראשית מ״ב:ט׳)

All these acts of Yosef are accounted for by his wisdom in the interpretation of the dreams. Otherwise, one should wonder: After Joseph stayed in Egypt for many years and became chief and overseer in the house of a great lord in Egypt, how was it possible that he did not send a single letter to his father to inform him of his whereabouts and comfort him, as Egypt is only about a six-day journey from Hebron? Even if it were a year’s journey, out of respect to his father……….. This was all  the more so after he heard Pharaoh’s dream, from which it became clear to him that all of them were destined to come there, and all his dreams would be fulfilled .(Ramban Bereshis 42:9)

However, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky argues that Yosef’s goals were more focused on teaching his brothers a lesson and less on fulfilling his personal dreams. In his sefer, “Emet L’Yaakov,” Rabbi Kamenetzky challenges the Ramban’s interpretation and casts doubt on the idea of prioritizing the fulfillment of personal dreams over the well-being of his brothers and father. He suggests an alternative explanation for Yosef’s behavior, claiming that Yosef wanted to teach his brothers an important lesson: one must know that things are not always as they seem. The brothers rushed to draw conclusions about Yosef, closed themselves off, held onto their misguided perceptions, and never examined themselves or their behavior to see if it required a change. The brothers acted based on those mistaken perceptions, leading to a lack of proper judgment on their part.

We will explore the themes of mistaken appearances and misguided judgment by Yosef’s brothers in the Yosef story:

Firstly, Yosef’s coat of many colors becomes a key point. Ya’akov gives Yosef this unique garment, which they see as a sign of favored status. However, the brothers misinterpret the situation, thinking that Yosef is boasting about his favored status, leading to jealousy and animosity among them.

Later, Yosef’s dreams play a significant role in the narrative. Yosef dreams two dreams in which his brothers, and even his father, bow down to him. The dreams suggest a desire for dominance, intensifying the brothers’ feelings of jealousy. The mistaken judgment of the brothers only accentuates the growing tension.

Later, when the brothers come to Egypt during the famine, they are unaware of Yosef’s true identity. Yosef, examining his brothers, accuses them of being spies and further creates tension by framing Benjamin, as the brothers have no idea who Yosef really is.

Another example of misguided judgment occurs when Benjamin is accused of theft. Yosef places his special cup specifically in Benjamin’s sack, and despite knowing that Benjamin is an upright man, the brothers accuse him of being a thief, the son of a thief (Rashi), revealing their stubborn tendency to judge negatively, even when faced with contradicting evidence.

The climax of the story occurs with Yosef’s revelation, only after Yehudah takes responsibility. This decisive moment, where Yosef exposes himself to his brothers, leaves them astonished and full of remorse. The realization shakes them as they acknowledge the extent of their mistaken judgments over the years and the false assumptions that shaped their actions.

Throughout these chapters, Yosef’s story highlights the recurring motif that external judgment can be misleading, and hasty judgment can lead to significant misunderstandings. The narrative encourages introspection and a deeper understanding of others, emphasizing the potential consequences of holding onto misguided perceptions without reevaluating our initial judgments and taking responsibility for our actions.

Now, regarding the question of why Yosef did not establish direct contact with his father:

Yosef’s actions were not solely motivated by the desire to fulfill his personal dreams but also to convey an important message to his brothers. By planning the trials and hardships they went through and requiring them to take responsibility, Yosef wanted to expose their tendency to jump to conclusions based on appearances and misguided perceptions and to correct that flaw. His silence towards his father served as a deliberate choice to enable his brothers to confront their errors in judgment.

In essence, Yosef concealed his true identity not to fulfill personal dreams but to reveal the inherent flaw in his brothers’ perception of reality. The climax of his revelation served as a decisive rebuke, forcing his brothers to confront their over 20-year-long mistake and the misguided assumptions that shaped their actions.

Yosef’s actions emphasize the profound lesson that reality may not always reflect external appearances, calling us to avoid quick and misguided judgment. The story encourages introspection and a deeper understanding of the other, highlighting the potential consequences of holding onto misguided perceptions. Yosef’s story serves as a timeless reminder to approach situations with correct judgment, humility, and a willingness to reconsider our initial judgments and take responsibility.

As with Yosef and his brothers, misinterpreting others’ actions or intentions can harm relationships between individuals. Incorrect assumptions, suspicion, misconceptions, or lack of understanding may lead to rifts between friends or partners.

Historical examples illustrate how misguided judgments in international relations can lead to severe outcomes. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, leading to World War I, the Munich Agreement leading to World War II, and the Yom Kippur War—all demonstrate the importance of avoiding entrapment in mistaken perceptions and the potential for profound humanitarian, political, and societal consequences.

On October 7th in Israel, a contemporary example of misguided judgment occurred when terrorists from Gaza attacked innocent citizens. The Israeli Defense Forces, under a mistaken perception and faulty assessment of the situation, failed to acknowledge the enemy’s power, intention, and capability to launch an attack on Israel. This flawed judgment led to adverse consequences, forcing Israel into a challenging war. The present leaders in Israel must absorb the profound lessons stemming from the flawed enemy assessment that triggered the recent conflict. It is imperative for them to acknowledge the lasting importance of accurate judgment when evaluating military capabilities, as this is crucial to averting catastrophic outcomes. Leaders should demonstrate a readiness to admit mistakes and assume responsibility for their actions.

In summary, the story of Yosef and his brothers, with its enduring lessons about appearances and misguided judgment, speaks deeply in a modern context. Through its narratives and insights, the Torah continues to offer valuable insights into the complexities of human relationships and the consequences of hastily jumping to conclusions. The relevance of these lessons transcends time, guiding individuals and societies grappling with the challenges of understanding others and avoiding the pitfalls of misguided judgment. The lesson to be learned is not to be frozen in  thought but always to examine our conceptions.

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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