Parshat Mikeitz: Was Joseph Fair?
There are two conundrums in this week’s Torah reading. The great Spanish commentator Abarbanel asks why Joseph treated his brothers so cruelly when they appeared before him in Egypt, seeking grain because of the famine. From the start, he recognized them, but they did not recognize him. Firstly, he accused them of being spies. Then he put them in jail for three days, demanded they bring Benjamin down to Egypt, held Simon as a hostage, and confused them by putting the money they paid for the provisions, back into their sacks.
Then they come back again with Benjamin, and Simon is released. They are treated with hospitality and gifts. But before they leave, Joseph plants his private cup in Benjamin’s sack, accuses them of theft, and threatens to keep Benjamin as his slave. He was toying with them. Was it to purge them of their guilt — or to purge himself of a desire for revenge?
One answer is that Joseph needed to be sure that the brothers — who had sold him into slavery — had repented for their treatment of him. Nachmanides responds that Joseph had by now realized that his position of power was both a fulfillment of his dreams and that his suffering had been part of a wider scheme that God had for him, and Joseph felt his behavior was also part of that plan to purge the past.
Another explanation is that repentance can only be completed when a person is placed in the exact position as when they did something wrong, and then acts differently. The brothers– having abandoned one brother — had to prove by not abandoning Benjamin that they had changed.
This leads to another issue: Why didn’t the brothers realize earlier that this viceroy was playing games? Why did he ask about their father? Why did he ask for Benjamin? Why send their money back with them? Why arrange their seating at his table according to their ages, and give extra presents to Benjamin? Were they so burdened with guilt they could not connect the dots?
You could argue that Joseph’s cruelty reflected theirs. They had no idea how much he had suffered before he managed to become the powerful man he was. This is a story of the law of unintended consequences. Even if things do turn out for the best, the process of suffering can go on for a long time and change a person. Similarly, genuine repentance requires a complete transformation that may take a long time.
Much later on, even after the reconciliation, the brothers still feared that Joseph would retaliate after their father died. Both cruelty and guilt can be very debilitating. A complete transformation is the only cure.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, and Happy Hanukkah.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.