A pious and beloved but poorly dressed Chasidic rebbe took a lengthy train ride to teach Torah in a town far away. The well-to-do passenger seated next to him subjected him to insult and verbal abuse for most of the ride. When the train finally reached its destination, the rebbe was greeted at the station by thousands of excited disciples, anxious to learn at his feet. The disrespectful passenger looked mortified as he saw the scene unfold. "I'm so ashamed," he said. "I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies." The rebbe turned to him and said, "Don't apologize to me. Apologize to the anonymous nobody you sat next to on the train. When you insulted me, you did so because in your eyes, I was a nobody."
(Chasidic tale, adapted from Erica Brown's retelling)
In this week's parashah, the sons of Jacob travel to Egypt during the famine to obtain food from Joseph, the estranged brother they no longer recognize. Joseph maintains his anonymity in order to test his brothers. Have they changed since they betrayed him more than two decades earlier? Have they learned how to act like brothers who take care of each other, or do old rivalries and jealousies hold sway? If he reveals himself too soon, his brothers might feign remorse in order to win his favor.
When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph "recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger to them and spoke roughly to them" (Genesis 42:7). One could surely forgive Joseph for dealing harshly with his brothers out of vengeance for abusing him, but revenge is not on his mind. He wants to know whether his brothers regret how they treated him. (As students in my Torah study group asked, why for twenty years did Joseph never send word to his family that he was still alive? Perhaps anonymity is key: if his brothers saw how powerful and important he was now, it would be impossible for him to know their genuine feelings about him.)
So Joseph devises several tests for his brothers. First, he insists on treating them as spies until they send someone home to Canaan to bring their youngest brother to Egypt. Such an act would require defying their father's wishes, since Jacob fears lest "a deadly mishap befall him [Benjamin]" (Genesis 42:4). Joseph lets them stew for three days and then makes a different offer: one brother shall remain confined in Egypt while the rest return home with food and then come back to Egypt with their youngest brother. Joseph wants to know if they are "honest men" (Genesis 42:19), which in itself would show profound moral growth from the fratricidal betrayers they had been in their youth.
What happens next is the first hint to Joseph that his brothers have made some progress. They say to one another, " 'Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul's distress when he pleaded with us, but we didn't listen—on that account this distress has come upon us.' Reuben now responded to them, saying, 'Didn't I say to you, "Do not sin against the lad!" But you wouldn't listen, and so his blood-payment, see—it has come due' " (Genesis 42:21-22).
Joseph, overcome with emotion upon hearing his brothers' words of regret, "left them and wept" (Genesis 42:24). Either "Reuben's words open old wounds" 1 or Joseph's heart opens at the possibility that his brothers feel genuine remorse for how they treated him. Maybe he feels both. At any rate, these words do not convince him enough to stop testing his brethren.
Simeon is chosen to stay in Egypt while the other brothers bring provisions to Jacob in Canaan. When they arrive, they discover that their money bags are still in their travel sacks—another test from Joseph. Jacob is crestfallen, thinking that Simeon will surely die, since the brothers appear to be thieves. His distress doubles for fear of what will befall Benjamin if he, too, travels to Egypt.
At this critical juncture, Reuben steps up, and steps in: "Put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; give him into my hands, and I will return him to you" (Genesis 42:37). Reuben, who had convinced the brothers not to murder Joseph but failed to rescue him entirely from their plot, pledges himself and his family to ensure Benjamin's safety on the journey to Egypt and back. But Jacob refuses to risk Benjamin, suffering still from his unresolved grief for Joseph.
Only desperation motivates Jacob and his sons to act, after they finish the provisions procured from Egypt. Apparently, Simeon's ongoing captivity in Egypt did not impress them: test of brotherly responsibility, failed! (That's not to mention that they've never revealed to Jacob what really happened to Joseph, that his beloved son wasn't devoured by a wild beast as they led Jacob to believe.) Now on the verge of starving again, the brothers insist on taking Benjamin with them to Egypt to uphold their bargain. Like Reuben in the previous scene, Judah now steps in and promises Jacob: "I will be responsible for him [Benjamin]: from my hand you may demand him; and if I do not bring him back to you and plant him in front of you, I shall stand condemned before you for all time" (Genesis 43:9). Taking responsibility for their family's welfare is the kind of moral progress Joseph is testing for.
The brothers arrive with Benjamin in tow, which pleases Joseph. Moreover, they come clean about their money bags returning home with them, lest their host accuse them of stealing (see Genesis 43:18-23). They are starting to act like the "honest men" Joseph hoped they could be. The sight of his closest brother Benjamin overwhelms Joseph with love so that he must leave the room and weep in private. He is not quite ready to reveal himself to his brothers, for he has one final test in store for them.
After a feast in his home, Joseph orders a servant to hide his goblet in Benjamin's bag, planting evidence of stealing in order to test his brothers yet again. He wants to know if they will turn on Benjamin—a proxy for Joseph, himself—in order to save themselves. Caught red-handed with the goblet, the brothers return together to Egypt. Judah, speaking on behalf of the brothers, offers another sign that the brothers have changed:
"What can we say to my lord? How speak and how justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; here we are, my lord's slaves—both we and the one who was caught with the goblet in his possession!" (Genesis 44:16)
Judah's final words show Joseph what he wants to see: the brothers are in this together. The boys he used to know would have left Benjamin to his fate and saved themselves. They have changed.
Joseph still isn't quite convinced. He pushes Judah one step further, offering to let the brothers leave as long as Benjamin, the thief, stays behind. Judah responds with a long speech about how returning without Benjamin will destroy their father. He begs for sympathy from Joseph. But it's his self-sacrifice for the sake of his brother that finally convinces Joseph to stop with the tests. Judah says:
"So now, please let your servant remain as my lord's slave in place of the lad [Benjamin], and let the lad go home with his brothers; for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer?" (Genesis 44:33-34)
Judah's selfless act reverses the scene of betrayal that Joseph suffered at his brothers' hands decades ago. Then, the brothers ganged up on Joseph out of jealousy to get rid of him. Now, they stick together to protect Benjamin, and Judah even volunteers to take Benjamin's place. Brotherly love and sympathy for their aging father motivates the brothers now. Jealousy has given way to responsibility. Joseph can "no longer restrain himself" (Genesis 45:1), and he finally reveals his identity.
The brothers recoil at this revelation. Perhaps they fear that Joseph harbors a grudge against them. But Joseph dispels their fear and reveals how thoroughly they passed his tests: "Don't be troubled, don't be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Genesis 45:5). Joseph's forgiveness has been hard earned. Joseph waited to reveal himself to ensure his brothers' repentance was genuine, not a superficial act of self-preservation. Through test after test, the sons of Jacob showed Joseph that t'shuvah—turning from their old, immoral ways—is possible.
1. See note on Genesis 42:24, W.G. Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 274
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.