Pluralistic Perspectives Why didn’t Joseph write home?
Reflections on Parashat Miketz
In Genesis 41:41-44, thirteen years after Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh puts his signet ring on Joseph’s hand and puts him in charge of all the land of Egypt, saying to him, “I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up a hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”
At the age of 30, Joseph is the second most powerful person in the known world. With the wave of a hand, he can command vast amounts of people and resources, yet he makes no attempt to communicate with his family. Perhaps, when he was a slave in Potiphar’s house or sitting in jail, he was embarrassed by his circumstances or didn’t have the resources to send word over the course of more than a decade. Yet why doesn’t he communicate with his family now?
It is easy to imagine why Joseph may want nothing to do with his brothers, but what about his father Jacob who “loved Joseph best of all his sons” (Genesis 37:3)? Maybe Joseph is really busy with his new job, or for political reasons he can’t leave Egypt and visit his father in Canaan—but could he at least send a letter? Ramban (Nachmanides) famously asks: “Even if it was his will to make his brothers suffer a little, how could he not have compassion on his aged father…How could he not send one letter to his father to inform him (that he was alive) and to comfort him, because Egypt is only about a six day trip to Hebron. Respect for his father would have justified a year’s journey…” (Ramban on Gen. 42:9).
Think about the relationships between siblings and between parents and children. Why might a child be separate and far away from their birthplace and their family? Why would a child, far from home, not visit—or at least write—home?
There are many important psychological reasons for strained family relationships. Imagine the many different feelings Joseph may have had after he was sold into slavery and sent to a foreign land—sadness, anger, shame. In a novel commentary, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun suggests that we ask a different question. Instead of “Why didn’t Joseph write home” we should ask “Why didn’t anyone come to look for him.” According to Bin-Nun, “We know that Jacob does not search for his son, as he thinks Joseph is dead, but Joseph has no way of knowing this…Joseph’s anguish centers on his father: the voice inside him asking ‘Where is my father?’” I find this analysis very interesting and relevant for us today, yet I think the text calls us to return to the original question. At the end of the Joseph story, Joseph is magnanimous with his brothers and says “God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50:20). Based on this, Joseph had good, positive reasons to wait to “write home.” What could they be?
Two of our greatest medieval biblical commentators, Rashi and Ramban, say the reason is—destiny. Joseph is preeminently focused on fulfilling God’s mission for him, which is communicated to him through dreams. In Joseph’s first dream (Genesis 37:7), his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his sheaf. In his second dream (Genesis 37:9), the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. According to Rashi and Ramban, Joseph waits to write home until these dreams are fulfilled—until the brothers come and bow to him. Yet other commentators have serious problems with Rashi and Ramban’s explanations. Is the fulfillment of dreams more important than obeying the fifth commandment, honoring your father and mother?
The great modern Torah commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, suggests a different reason which warranted the suffering endured by Joseph’s family—he was enabling his brothers to repent for their sin against him. Rambam teaches us in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 2, Halachah 1), the definition of complete repentance: “He who was confronted by the identical thing where he transgressed and it lies within his power to commit the transgression (again) but he nevertheless abstained and did not succumb…” Using this lens, Joseph wanted to give his brothers a chance to repent. He was waiting for them to have a chance, once again, to forsake a brother, and this time to do the right thing. As we know from the story, this is exactly what happens. Judah, the brother who suggested selling Joseph in Genesis 37:27, offers himself as a slave instead of Benjamin in Genesis 44:33. As soon as this “complete repentance” is demonstrated, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, asks about his father, and asks his brothers to hurry back and tell their father that he is alive and well.
I think Joseph’s intentions do more than enable his brothers’ repentance. As a result of his magnanimity, Joseph proves himself to be the leader of a united family. Unlike their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Joseph and his brothers are the first generation to have “Jewish” siblings. That is, they become the tribes of Israel, united under the rubric of God’s promise to the patriarchs. Instead of only one child inheriting the covenant, all of Jacob’s children inherit the covenant. Who will lead this family and how will they have shalom bayit, peace/wholeness in the home? From Jacob’s outward favoring of Joseph, the special coat, Joseph’s dreams, and his being sold into slavery—the story doesn’t begin well on this front. But once Joseph leaves home and goes to Egypt, he embarks on a journey of growth and personal transformation. From dreamer to dream interpreter, he shifts from a focus on self to a focus on others. He refuses temptations that would bring him physical pleasure and increasing wealth and power. He refuses to sin before God and God is with him. As he ascends to the pinnacle of power in Egypt, he orchestrates the saving of many lives, including the lives of his family. By forsaking vengeance, enabling repentance, and showing compassion, Joseph models leadership and the vital, important pursuit of family peace. Even on his deathbed, Joseph is focused on family as he says to his brothers: “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land the God promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24).
Jevin Eagle is a Shanah Bet student in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.