Objective Thinking

Why Yosef’s brothers did not realize that the Egyptian viceroy standing before them was their brother.

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Rabbi Daniel Fine,

Rabbi Daniel Fine
Rabbi Daniel Fine

Most of us are familiar with the Joseph (Yosef) story via some way or another, whether from a school play, the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical or studying the Torah itself.

The saga of the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt, followed by his rise to power and then his revealing himself to his brothers; it really is the stuff of dreams both literally and figuratively. However, if we put this story under the microscope and analyze it from a different angle, there is a tremendously striking lesson to be learnt here; one emphasized by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (d. 1953).

The essential question is: why did Yosef’s brothers not realize that the Egyptian viceroy standing before them was their brother? Both the question and its eventual answer need explanation, so we shall briefly recap the chain of events in the episode of Yosef's sale. We are very much used to going through this story from an informed onlooker’s perspective, knowing that the viceroy is really Yosef and knowing that the brothers are unaware of this. However, if we look at the story from the brothers’ perspective, the story should take on an entirely new dimension.

The brothers decided for some reason (several reasons are discussed) to sell their brother Yosef into slavery, who eventually ended up in Egypt. It was not unlikely that a slave should make his way to Egypt, since Egypt was the major power in those days, and so the possibility of Yosef ending up there would not have been beyond the imagination of Yosef's brothers. In fact, Rashi (42:13) tells us that the reason the brothers later entered Egypt through different gates was to spread out and look for Yosef, which implies that they indeed suspected that Yosef was in Egypt.

Years later, when ten of the brothers went down to Egypt to purchase food due to the famine in the land of Israel, they met with the viceroy of Egypt. This viceroy was Yosef, of course, but to the uninformed brothers he was simply the Egyptian viceroy. We are told that the brothers did not recognise Yosef for he had now grown a beard (Rashi ibid. 42:8). A beard is presumably not a very major change of appearance, and there surely must have been some resemblance of the brother they once knew in the viceroy’s features. One may therefore ask why seeing this viceroy did not ring a bell (or several bells) in the brothers’ minds?

After this, the viceroy accused the brothers of being spies, to which they responded that they were in fact all brothers and that they had left one brother back in Canaan. The viceroy then asked them to prove this by bringing their remaining brother to Egypt, and meanwhile took Simon as a captive.

This is extremely puzzling, and the brothers must have been wondering about some, if not all, of the following questions.  First, why had they been given a chance to protest their innocence at being accused of spying in ancient Egypt? Second, what would it prove if they were all brothers - maybe they were brothers who were all spies? Third, why would it prove anything to bring their brother to show the viceroy - as far as the viceroy was concerned, they could have taken any man off the street and pretended that he was their brother! Fourth, which ruler would run the risk of letting nine spies free while keeping one in prison? And fifth, if this viceroy really thought that they were spies, why did he fill their bags with food? The brothers must have realised that something strange was going on, and the viceroy was behaving in a most uncharacteristic fashion. At the very least they must have wondered why the viceroy was treating them with such relative kindness.

As the story continues, the brothers eventually managed to get Yaakov's permission to take Binyamin down to Egypt, and Simon was then returned to them, as promised. The viceroy, in apology for his false accusations towards them, arranged a slap-up meal to be enjoyed in his house.

Surely it was hardly the protocol for a leader of ancient Egypt to treat those he had accused of being spies with a lavish meal with him at his house to apologise. Presumably, the protocol was that someone accused of spying would have been executed before having an opportunity to prove his innocence! Did the brothers not realise that this was abnormal? Next, this viceroy sat the brothers according to their seniority, announcing “Yehudah is royalty so he sits at the front, Reuven the firstborn sits next to him,” and he went on to say that Binyamin should sit next to him for neither of them had a living mother. (Rashi ibid. 43:33). Why did the brothers fail to process this information which indicated that this viceroy was their brother Yosef?

Eventually, after the brothers left and the cup had been planted in Binyamin’s sack, the brothers returned and Yosef revealed his true identity to them. What was their reaction to this revelation? The passuk (ibid. 45:3) records that the brothers were completely speechless. Nobody turned to his brother and said “I thought it was Yosef,” or “I told you so!” It seems that the thought that this might be Yosef did not enter the brothers’ minds at any point during the entire episode.

To summarise the question, it seems that the brothers had many clues: a) the viceroy was behaving differently toward them, b) they thought that Yosef was in Egypt, c) the viceroy must have looked rather familiar to them, d) he knew about their family. So why did they not realise that this was Yosef?

In fact, the Midrash makes these questions even stronger, for it states (Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 93:8) that when the viceroy was about to reveal himself, he first said to the brothers, “Your brother who you sold is in the house,” and started shouting “Yosef ben Yaakov come out!” The brothers started looking around the room in all directions to see where their brother would appear from. They had no idea that the viceroy was Yosef. And even when he did reveal himself, saying “I am Yosef,” the above midrash reports that the brothers did not believe him! Yosef had to prove himself by showing them a certain part of his body which proved his Jewishness. Why did the brothers refuse to believe that the viceroy was Yosef? 

The answer to all of this is that if the viceroy was indeed Yosef, it would have been too major a consequence for the brothers to bear. For if this viceroy was Yosef, it would be an open demonstration and admission that they had been incorrect in selling him into slavery, for his dreams had indeed come true, and Hashem had made him succeed. Additionally, after all these years they would now have to admit to their father that they had wrongly sold their brother into slavery, for all their calculations about Yosef‘s dreams being false had now been proven wrong.

In other words, guessing that this was Yosef would mean openly admitting that the last two decades or so of their lives had been lived in fault. Consequently, the thought never entered their minds, despite all the clues, that this viceroy was really Yosef, for subconsciously it was not allowed to be an option. This explains why, even after Yosef revealed himself, the brothers could not accept this conclusion. In fact, this is why, when the verse (ibid. 45:3) tells us that the brothers were speechless after Yosef had revealed himself, Rashi explains that they were speechless “because of the embarrassment.”

Surely shock would have been a more fitting emotion here – why were they embarrassed? The answer is that they were embarrassed to have have been wrong for so many years. This is also why one of the first things Yosef did after revealing himself to the brothers was to tell them not to feel guilty for selling him (ibid. 45:5), because the implication of Yosef revealing his true identity was that the brothers had been mistaken for selling him.

[In a way, this lesson about discarding self-bias and viewing things objectively served to correct the brothers’ mistake in selling Yosef. They had looked at Yosef through their own, subjective lenses, branding Yosef a power-hungry brother who wanted to be the sole heir to Yaakov’s legacy and who dreamed accordingly. Similarly, they saw Yaakov’s treatment of Yosef as favouritism, instead of accepting the fact that it was common practice that the youngest son would remain at home to attend to the father of the family and that this son was often given a special coat with which to serve his father. Had they looked at things more objectively they might have realised that Yosef’s dreams were prophecies and that Yosef was not looking to usurp the brothers’ mantles in the grand tapestry of the Jewish People whatsoever.]

The lesson for us is to learn to acquire the ability to look objectively at things and admit the truth, regardless of how painful the personal consequences might be. Picture a son sent home from school for stealing office equipment; the father gives his son a lecture about honesty and avoiding theft, then ends off with ‘if you want office supplies just ask me; I’ll bring some home from work’. Objective thought would brand this a moral contradiction – subjectivity has clouded this father’s thought. We are very good at twisting the facts to fit with our expectations or perceptions of what did, should, or would have happened. We would rather twist facts than face the music and admit being wrong.

When Abraham chose the path of Judaism he did so via working on gaining an objective picture of creation and refining that for forty years; despite the mockery and opposition of the entire world.  It is when we can be objective – when we can analyze ourselves, our lives, and deal with others without the clouds of bias tainting our internal mirrors – that we can see the truth.