Master of Memory II
“Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger towards them and spoke harshly with them. He asked them, ‘From where do you come?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan to buy food.’ Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (Genesis 42:7–8).”
The midrash is bothered by the repetition of, “Joseph recognized his brothers.” It explains this by saying that Joseph recognized his brothers as his brothers; he treated them as brothers despite the fact that they had not so treated him.
We also have to explain what the verse means when it says, “spoke harshly with them.” Is this an introduction to the conversation that follows? His words don’t seem that harsh. Rabbeinu Ovadiah Seforno translates this as, “Joseph disguised his voice.”
Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them from his dreams. He immediately connected his brothers’ appearance to his dreams of long ago. Joseph had an opportunity to immediately confront his brothers and point out to them that his dreams had been realized there they were bowing down to him. However, at this point Joseph chose to act as a stranger to his dreams. He chose a harsher approach to reconect his brothers to the past.
Perhaps they misunderstood when he asked them, “From where do you come?” Joseph was asking them about their past; they thought he was asking them where they lived. Joseph wanted them to connect their past to everything they were experiencing at this moment and would experience over the next few months as they interacted with the Egyptian viceroy. “From where have you come to reach this point that you are bowing before me?”
The Viceroy surely knew that they were appearing before him to purchase food. Why would they say, “From the land of Canaan to buy food”? He knows they are there for food. It was almost as if the brothers were defensive and wanted to justify their immediate behavior. No wonder the midrash describes the following conversation:
Joseph asks the brothers, “Why did you enter through ten different gates?” They answered, “To search for our long-lost brother.”
Joseph responded, “And what would you do if you found him?”
“We would redeem him.”
“And if the Egyptian refused to sell him back to you, what would you do?”
They responded, “We came to kill or be killed.”
He said to them, “That is exactly what I said! You came to kill!”
“Joseph recognized his brothers,” he recognized this pattern in their behavior, and considered their ability to justify their immediate behavior lacking a broader perspective. Joseph recognized that his brothers had not changed. The proof in the pudding was that, “They did not recognize him.” The brothers could not see what was right before their eyes because they were continuing this old pattern of behavior focusing only on what was immediately before them.
“Joseph recalled the dreams that he dreamed about them,” and understood that they were not yet ready to become who they were in his dreams of many years ago.
“So he said to them, ‘You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness have you come!’”
Simply by referring to, “the land’s nakedness,” the viceroy is implying that Egypt has serious vulnerabilities. The Viceroy was hinting that the Egyptians suspected that their current position as the breadbasket of the area made them likely targets of other local powers. How fascinating that Rashi (Verse 1) comments that Jacob said to his sons, “Why do you show yourselves as having plenty to eat? Such behavior will lead to envy and ill will on the part of the families of Ishmael and Esau (Ta’anit 10b).” The brothers had already heard from their father, Jacob, that those who have food when others do not are in danger from those who are hungry and living without. The brothers are hearing the viceroy of Egypt thinking the same way as their great father!
In fact, the brothers actually experienced this before! “Then he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, ‘Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which belonged to our father he amassed all this wealth’ (Genesis 31:1).” The verse describes the brothers as standing by their father, Jacob, as his brothers: “and Jacob said to his brethren, ‘Gather stones!’ (31:46), Rashi explains that Jacob’s sons stood by him in trouble and battle like brothers!
They did not stand by their father as brothers when they attacked Shechem. They did not stand by their father as brothers when they sold Joseph into slavery sending their father into inconsolable grief. When Joseph points out to them that Egypt is vulnerable because of what it has, he is reconnecting them to their memory of standing by their father when he was under attack for what he had; a period of time of when they had stood by their father as brothers.
Once again, Joseph takes his brothers into the past, reframing their memories, so that they would be prepared to become the people they were in Joseph’s dreams.
To be continued…
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