Pride and Prejudice

And Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” And they were not able to respond to him because they were confused before him. (Sefer Beresheit 35:3)

I. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers

In Parshat VaYigash, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. He asks them to confirm that his father Yaakov is still alive. The brothers are overcome with confusion and cannot respond. There is an obvious reason for this confusion. 

The brothers first encountered Paroh’s highest minister when they came to Egypt to purchase food for their families. Their relationship with this minister was complex. Initially, he accused them of spying on the Land of Egypt. He demanded they prove their innocence by bringing him their youngest brother. He imprisoned Shimon and sent the other brothers back to the Land of Cana’an. The brothers returned with Binyamin. Shimon was released. Yosef invited the brothers into his home, entertained them, and gave them generous gifts. He provided them with provisions for their families and returned to them the money they had brought to purchase these provisions. 

II. The causes of the brothers’ confusion

Now, they are again before this important minister. He was sometimes very kind. Other times he was suspicious, harsh, and demanding. They never suspected that this powerful but unpredictable and enigmatic minister was their brother Yosef! Suddenly, he declares he is Yosef. The brothers’ befuddlement is completely understandable.

Some commentators suggest that the brothers’ confusion had other causes.[1] Chizkuni explains that the brothers were uncertain of Yosef’s attitude toward them. They had sold Yosef. How would Yosef treat them? Would he demand their punishment?[2] Rashi explains that the brothers’ response expressed their embarrassment.[3] Let us more carefully consider these interpretations of the brothers’ confusion.

And they said one to another: But we are guilty for our brother because we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. Therefore, this trouble has befallen us. (Sefer Beresheit 42:21)

III. The brothers accept their guilt

From the beginning of their conflict with Paroh’s minister, the brothers were introspective. They did not interpret the minister’s suspicions and accusations as happenstance misfortune. Years earlier they had thrown their troublesome, presumptuous, egotistical brother into a pit. He called out to them pleading that they spare him. They ignored his anguish and sold him into servitude. They concluded that their troubles were punishment for their callous treatment of Yosef. Their sense of foreboding and the anticipation of retribution recurred when the minister discovered his goblet in Binyamin’s baggage. They believed their deserved punishment would now be exacted. 

Chizkuni’s suggestion that the brothers feared that Yosef would punish them for their behavior toward him may reflect these thoughts. The brothers had concluded that they deserved to be punished. They believed that their struggles with Paroh’s minister were Divine retribution for their crimes. Learning that their antagonist was the brother they had betrayed only intensified their expectation of punishment. The brothers were preoccupied with anticipation of retribution and Yosef’s revelation was received in this context. 

IV. Shame instead of joy

Rashi’s position is more difficult to understand. The brothers were paralyzed by shame. During their ordeal, the brothers reconsidered their behavior toward their brother. They deeply regretted their treatment of Yosef. They attributed their tribulations to their callousness toward him. Should not they have rejoiced to learn that Yosef survived and even thrived in Egypt? Why did shame replace celebration? 

This question is even more troubling considering another comment of Rashi: 

“And the brothers of Yosef descended… [The Torah] does not write “the sons of Yaakov”. It teaches that they regretted his sale and committed themselves to behave toward him in a brotherly manner and redeem him for any amount that would be required of them.” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 32:3)

Rashi explains that the brothers initially traveled to Egypt on two missions. They planned to purchase provisions for their families. Also, they traveled to Egypt as Yosef’s brothers. They would seek out their missing brother and redeem him from servitude. They hoped to find Yosef. They expected him to be a slave. They anticipated paying for his redemption. Now, they discovered that Yosef is alive. Their mission was fulfilled. Also, rather than finding their brother suffering under the yoke of slavery, he was Paroh’s most important minister. They should have rejoiced!

And Yosef recognized his brothers and they did not recognize him. (Sefer Beresheit 42:8)

V. The brothers’ expectations

The brothers arrived in Egypt. Yosef immediately recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Throughout their interactions, the brothers never suspected that the minister with whom they were struggling was their brother Yosef. Rashi explains that when the brothers sold Yosef, they were physically mature. Yosef was still a youngster. Over the many years of his separation from his brothers, Yosef’s appearance had changed so much that the brothers did not recognize him.[4] 

VI. The limits of the brothers’ repentance

Perhaps, there is another reason that the brothers failed to recognize Yosef. They sold him into slavery. They hoped to find him but expected that he would be a miserable slave. It was inconceivable that this minister was their brother.

Their expectation that Yosef was a slave was understandable. However, it may have had a deeper foundation. The brothers came to Egypt repentant of their treatment of Yosef. They were prepared to rescue him. During their struggles with Paroh’s minister, they declared that they were callous and heartless to their brother. However, their repentance did not include a reevaluation of Yosef’s character and his claim that he was destined to be their leader.[5] Their opinion of Yosef had not changed. They had decided that despite Yosef’s failings, they had sinned in their treatment of him. 

They continued to resent Yosef and to reject his claim that he was destined to be their leader. They continued to retain these attitudes and judgments. They expected Yosef to be a miserable slave. They would rescue him and be his redeemer. Their expectations implicitly rejected Yosef’s claims of a special destiny. They expected him to have experienced the typical fate of a foreign slave sold into bondage in Egypt. They rejected the possibility that something extraordinary might have occurred to Yosef. 

If the brothers had found Yosef in the abject conditions that they anticipated and they had come forth as his redeemers, they would have rejoiced. But they did not discover Yosef among Egypt’s slaves. He was Paroh’s highest minister. He had lived an extraordinary life which attested to his special destiny. They were not prepared for this revelation. When Yosef revealed himself, they were forced to acknowledge that they had misjudged him. He was special. This realization was the source of their embarrassment. 

VII. The victims of prejudice

We form impressions of others. Often, these impressions are not based on objective analysis. They are self-serving. We want to believe in our superiority over others or that we are at least the equal of our peers. Sometimes, we go to great lengths to sustain these fictitious judgments of others. We ignore the good, talents, or even greatness in others. These prejudices impact our treatment of others and often deprive us of the wisdom or other gifts that friends might share with us. The story of Yosef and his brothers alerts us to the strength of these prejudices that the harm that they can bring upon us. 

[1] The term used in the passage to describe the brothers’ reaction is נבהלו. The term is often used in תנ"ך to describe confusion caused by fear or anxiety. The commentators are identifying the source of the brothers’ fear or anxiety. 

[2] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 45:3.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:3.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:8. Rashi explains that the brothers were bearded when they were separated. Yosef did not have a beard. The minister that confronted the brothers had a beard. This change concealed Yosef’s identity.

[5] See Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit. 42:21.