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Why Didn’t Joseph Contact His Family?

I was thinking about the story of Joseph in the Torah, and a thought came to me. Why didn't Joseph contact his father Jacob as soon as he became the viceroy of Egypt? Only after the brothers came did he arrange for the reunification – and even that only after putting them through a lot of upset. As viceroy I assume he could have easily sent a delegation to Jacob to tell him he was alive and well. Why did he allow his father to suffer for so many years? Do the commentators discuss this issue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your very good question. Yes, the issue is discussed by one of the classic commentators to the Torah, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, called "Ramban" in Hebrew based on an acronym of his name, great Torah commentator, philosopher and Kabbalist of 13th century Spain). He asks precisely your question in his commentary to Genesis 42:9. Below I write an approach based on thoughts heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig, in part predicated on Nachmanides's comments.

The family knew that they were destined to be exiled, to become slaves in a foreign land, as was foretold to their ancestor Abraham years before (Gen. 15:13). Joseph knew that the only way they would be able to survive such an exile was if they would be united as a single people.

Joseph further knew, as he had been shown in his dreams, that he was meant to be the leader of the family. He thus saw his mission as uniting his brothers under him – that they should get past their old sibling rivalries and coalesce into a single people, under his authority. Joseph used his position of authority to bring this about.

Joseph knew that a famine was soon to come, and he understood that it was a part of the Divine plan to begin the Egyptian exile. Joseph thus waited for his opportunity to unite the family. As the Midrash writes, Joseph instituted certain laws to guarantee that all his brothers would come and he would know just who they are. He decreed that slaves were not permitted to enter the country, that each buyer could bring only a single donkey (so all the brothers would have to come to purchase sufficient food), and that everyone who came was required to register his name, his father’s name, and his grandfather’s name (Bereishit Rabbah 91:4). Joseph was anxiously awaiting his brothers’ arrival, so he could put his plan into action.

When the brothers first came and bowed to him, Joseph saw his dreams beginning to be fulfilled. This was the bowing he had seen in his dreams years earlier. And he had them return with Benjamin so that the first dream could be fulfilled in full.

But Joseph had a much more important challenge for his brothers. Would they stick up for Benjamin, as they had not done for him? Or did they still feel animosity towards his part of the family, the children of Rachel?

Joseph thus orchestrated a difficult challenge. He would get Benjamin in trouble, threaten to take him as a slave, and see if the brothers would stick up for him. Judah passed this challenge in flying colors by offering himself as slave in place of his brother.

Joseph had thus helped his siblings express a powerful sense of brotherhood between them. He knew they were now a united nation, one which could survive the rigors of exile and slavery. As soon as they passed the test, he revealed himself to them and the nation was reunited.

Not surprisingly, as soon the challenge was successfully concluded, Joseph could not have his brothers contact his father fast enough. He told them to rush back and tell his father the wonderful news that he was alive and well (see Gen. 45:9 and 13). Naturally Joseph was anxiously yearning to be reunited with his beloved father after all these years. But he had to first play the part of heartless dictator – until the brothers could prove themselves worthy of becoming the Jewish people.

See also this link for part 3 of a 3-part series on the story of Jacob and Esau, which explains in more detail Joseph’s role in creating the nation at that crucial time.

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