Parshat Vayeishev

Why did Joseph not try to get in touch with his father, Jacob, during all those years that he was in a position of prominence in Egypt? Surely, he missed his beloved father, and had the capacity to send some messengers back to Canaan to get word to Jacob. Why then the silence?

A good number of the commentaries grapple with this question.

Ramban (Genesis 42:9) suggests that Joseph remained silent because he needed to see the prophecies of his youth come to fruition, and a premature reunification of the family might have hindered the actualization of his dreams. Two powerful lessons emerge from this comment of the Ramban. First, Joseph’s dreams were not just a vision of the future, but rather a plan of action which he was required to fulfill. Further, Joseph somehow knew what life choices would help accomplish the dreams (i.e. don’t contact father), and which life choices would foil the plan (i.e. contact father).

Ohr Hachayim (Genesis 45:26) develops a theory that Joseph was worried that his brothers would intercept a message sent to Jacob and, once they learned that Joseph was still alive, would go to Egypt to kill him. This approach fits well with the end of the story wherein Joseph goes to great lengths to discover whether or not his brother still harbored hatred for him after all those years.

Ketav Sofer (Genesis 45:4) writes that had Joseph told Jacob what happened to him, it would have caused Jacob to hate his other sons for what they did to Joseph. Since Joseph had forgiven his brothers for their actions, he did not want any harm to come to his brothers.

The Bechor Shor (Genesis 37:26) has a novel approach which has its roots in the Midrash Tanchuma and is shared by other Baalei HaTosaphot including the Riva and the Daat Zekeinim.

The Bechor Shor writes that the brothers planned on killing Joseph by throwing him into the pit. They did not have the malice to kill him directly with their own hands, and therefore they threw him in a dry pit wherein he would eventually die. This, according to the Bechor Shor, is why the Torah specifies that there was no water in the pit. Had there been water, Joseph would have drowned immediately and directly at the hands of his brothers.

The brothers wanted Joseph dead, but were reluctant to kill him directly. Therefore when an alternative presented itself, Judah took advantage of the situation. Not only would they be able to get rid of Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites, and thereby not need to bloody their own hands, but they would make some money on the deal too. What could be better! There was just one problem with this new plan. What would happen if Joseph were to one day escape his new masters or otherwise buy his own freedom? He would run back to Jacob and tell his father what his brother did to him. If this were to occur, then Judah and his brothers would be in big trouble. How then could Judah allow the sale of Joseph to transpire knowing that one day it could potentially get him in trouble?

The Bechor Shor presents, based on the Midrash, a fascinating resolution. Judah posed the dilemma and its solution to Joseph himself. He said to Joseph, “You have two options: Either die in the pit, or be sold to these Ishmaelites. But if you choose to be sold, then you must take an oath to never tell our father what happened.” Judah knows that Joseph is a man of his word. Joseph cannot lie even if he wants to, that’s why Joseph told everyone about his dreams even when sharing them was to his own detriment.

Joseph makes a wise decision. He chooses life over death. He chooses to be sold to the Ishmaelites, but the sale comes at a cost to him. He takes an oath to keep everything a secret. Therefore he is not allowed to contact his father all those years that he lived in Egypt because he would then be violating his own oath. And who better to appreciate the power of an oath, then Jacob, Ish haEmet, the man of truth.

It is interesting to note that according to Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 232:14) an oath taken under duress is not binding. A person is allowed to falsely take an oath in order to save his or her own life. However, the Rama writes (ibid) that an oath taken under duress should not be violated if the people who forced the oath would later find out that the person lied under oath just to save his own life. Such a scenario would create a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Seemingly, had Joseph broken his oath and informed his father of what truly happened, then his brothers would most likely find out. Thus, breaking such an oath would be problematic according to the Rama.

This approach of the Bechor Shor perhaps helps explain why Joseph created such a dramatic and complex ruse when his brothers came down to Egypt. Joseph was not allowed to speak of his sale to his father, and he therefore needed the story to unfold in a way in which he would not disclose to his father what had really happened.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that Joseph, even in a dire situation, lived up to his own personal standards of integrity. He could have lied to Judah and taken a false oath just to secure his freedom, but he did not. Joseph knew that ultimately God controls his destiny and cheating in the short term would only preclude him from becoming the person he was destined to be.