Preparing For Exile

Joseph used his position of rulership to help his brothers develop coping skills for their upcoming exile.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Joseph's interaction with his brothers is one of the most perplexing stories in the Torah, one that has puzzled generations of readers for thousands of years.

preparing for exile in vayigash

Why does Joseph conceal his identity? Why did he wait so long to tell his father that he was in Egypt?

Even if one follows the view of the Abarbanel (15th century Spanish/Portuguese commentator), that, as a slave, Joseph had no means of informing Jacob and, after his ascension to political power, he still could not do so lest he be accused of disloyalty, questions abound.

Explaining His Actions

How do we explain his demand that the brothers bring his younger brother Benjamin down from Israel? Why did he falsely accuse Benjamin of being a thief and sentence him to slavery, when he knew the news would devastate Jacob and perhaps kill him? In Joseph, we are not simply dealing with a victim who finds himself in a position to take revenge. And even if we were, why would he want to exact vengeance on his father?

The Ramban (Nachmanides) states that Joseph perceived his dreams as a Divine mandate. His dream, years earlier, that 11 stars bowed to him made it essential for Benjamin, the 11th brother, to descend to Egypt as well and acknowledge him as ruler.

Moreover, since Joseph also dreamt that the sun and moon bowed before him (presumably representing his parents), Jacob needed to join them. Joseph, therefore, imprisoned Benjamin in order to draw his father down to Egypt.

Many commentators question the Ramban's view. Is it Joseph's job to manipulate his family through fraud and misrepresentation just to fulfill his dreams? Do the ends justify the means? Is it not God's job to insure that His prophecies are carried out?

One possible explanation can be found in Joseph's understanding that his descent to Egypt was a prelude to the enslavement of the Jewish people there. As such, his Divinely ordained mission was to pave the way for his brethren by giving them the tools they would need to survive this exile, to retain there faith in God in a hostile and decadent environment, and not to assimilate.

Remaining Joseph

Every step of his life demonstrated "Ani Yosef." I remain Joseph. Whether one is at the pinnacle of greatness or at the nadir of persecution--Joseph embodied both extremes--one can always be a Joseph, faithful to the Torah and to the Jewish people. This is why we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph's children, who grew up in an exile with few, if any role models yet remained faithful to God.

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Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz

Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz is Rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Torah-Woodside Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland.