An Act of Spiteful Vengence or an Act of Love?
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Yosef’s behavior in Egypt seems rather strange. Despite being the viceroy of Egypt, he makes no attempt to contact his aging and grief stricken father. When his brothers eventually arrive in Egypt to buy food supplies, rather than revealing himself to them, he torments them. He takes one of the brothers (Shimon) as a prisoner and demands to see their youngest brother in exchange for Shimon’s freedom. He was fully aware of the strain this demand placed upon his father, Yaakov. He also returns their money in their sacks which causes his brothers and father additional anxiety. When his brothers finally return to Egypt, he still does not reveal his identity. He then arranges for his goblet to be planted in Binyamin’s sack and threatens to take him permanently as a slave. Finally, after Yehudah puts up a tremendous amount of resistance, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and sends for his father, Yaakov. Was this simply spiteful vengeance?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that Joseph deeply wanted to reunite with his father and brothers and form one united family unit. However, he knew that would only be possible if a) He were able to overcome his resentment towards them and b) They would realize their error and thereby have the capacity to repair their relationships with him. Were he to simply reveal himself to his father and brothers he would gain a father but run the risk of alienating himself and his father from the other brothers leaving a broken family. He understands that he needs to see them as changed men and more compassionate people in order to completely drop his deep-seated resentment toward them and to be confident that they were in turn capable of reciprocal love. He therefore designs specific situations to test his brothers’ resolve, thus freeing himself of his own personal resentment.
Yosef did not want to say ‘I forgive you’ when in fact deep down he was resentful. He was honest with himself and knew that real forgiveness lies not in a few meaningless words but rather in serious self-awareness and internal struggle. In my opinion we see from this interaction not the ‘smallness’ of Josef, but an incredible greatness. He sacrificed his personal relationship with his father for many years in order to ensure that his family was reunited in a meaningful and deep way. Despite his resentment, his desire for the ultimate welfare of his father and brothers trumped his desperate desire to reunite with his father.