After the death of Yaakov Avinu, Bereishit 50:15 informs us that the brothers were concerned that Yosef would act harshly with them in response to how they originally treated him. As long as Yaakov was alive they were not afraid of this consequence, for Yosef in deference to his father would clearly not hurt them. Now that Yaakov was no longer living however, they no longer had this protection.
The question emerges, though: why would they think this? The commentators explain that there were some changes, after the death of Yaakov, in the behaviour of Yosef towards his brothers, for all of which Yosef had legitimate reasons.1 The brothers, however, understood these changes to be possibly motivated by malicious reasons and thus their concern.
The text continues that the brothers then devised a plan to advise Yosef that Yaakov, before his passing, instructed the brothers to direct Yosef to forgive his brothers for their misdeeds against him and not to take any negative action against them. In response to hearing this, Yosef simply wept for he knew that this directive could not have been true.2 He was, thus, deeply saddened that his brothers had this concern and did not fully acknowledge his positive feelings towards them.
We may wonder, though: how was Yosef so sure that the brothers were obviously lying in this regard? Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit, Vaychi 6, Truth Gives Way to Peace explains that, as there was ample opportunity for Yaakov, before he died, to give such a direction to Yosef, Yosef reasoned that there was no cause for Yaakov to send this message through the brothers and, as such, it must be false. Furthermore, did Yaakov even know that Yosef was sold by his brothers into slavery?
There are, in fact, many sources which point to the fact that Yaakov never found out about this sale. Ramban, Bereishit 45:27 clearly states that, in his opinion, Yaakov was never told about the sale and, from the text, there is actually no indication that he ever was. How, in fact, would he even have found out? The brothers would not have told and, potentially, face their father’s wrath.3 Yosef, in keeping with his ethical nature, also would not have shared with his father his brothers’ misdeeds. Ramban thus says that Yaakov must have thought that Yosef was simply apprehended by criminals. But still, why would Yaakov not simply ask Yosef what happened? Perhaps, he was concerned about the possible emotional pain such memories would call forward in Yosef and he did not wish to cause this, especially for no reason except his curiosity? What further bothered me, though, was why Yaakov, at least, did not ask Yosef why the latter, as Viceroy of Egypt, did not contact his father whom he must have known was in great pain from missing his son?4
Many commentators5 indeed do ask why Yosef did not contact his father when he had the power to do so, adding clearly that, without a proper reason, this lack of action would have been wrong. As this question would have practical, ethical significance, it is one I think Yaakov would have asked yet there is no indication that he approached this issue either.
This absence of the mention of such a discussion is, of course, not really a problem for there is much that is not told. This is unlike the argument that Yaakov did not know about the sale — and, as such, must have not asked Yosef about it — which is substantiated in aspects of the text. Even if Yaakov did ask about why Yosef did not contact him, it also would not necessarily mean that Yosef would then have told Yaakov about the sale. Informing Yaakov of the sale could still have been avoided. Rabbi Moshe Hochman, Morasha, Parshat Vayechi, Kavod Melech V’Navi, though, quotes Da’at Zekanim M’Ba’alei Tosfot, Bereishit 48:1 who suggests that Yosef actually limited his time spent with his father6 in fear of Yaakov asking him how he came to be in Egypt and the potential consequences a truthful response would have upon the brothers.
This answer could also apply as to why Yaakov never asked Yosef about the latter not contacting him, a question that could have opened up the entire topic and possibly have led to Yaakov hearing about the sale. Maybe Yaakov would not have asked Yosef about the sale because he would have been concerned about the emotional pain for his son this memory would bring. But there are other questions we would expect to have been addressed in a close father-son relationship, especially when there was such a vast period of separation. Maybe, though, they were addressed but with caution to avoid causing any pain. What the response of the Ba’alei Tosfot raises, however, is an issue of communication suggesting a choice by Yosef to avoid communication generally rather than face potential negative consequences that may emerge from it.
If one considers the entire episode of Yosef and his brothers, it would seem that communication was actually a very significant issue therein. This should really not be surprising, for proper communication done within the parameters of ethical propriety is actually a most difficult objective to achieve. In a certain way, the family of Yaakov was the first Torah society, thus the first community to face this daunting task of proper communication. This may also be a significant aspect of this story.
The challenge is that the strength of communication lies in its freedom, the opportunity and ability for one to express himself/herself openly. Correct ethical standards, though, demand of us to also accept certain restraints in this regard. How do we then maintain strong communication while meeting these proper ethical restraints? This is not easy. The argument that Yosef possibly chose to limit communication and even interaction with his father due to concern for possible negative consequences reflects this difficulty. How do we truly communicate with others while still maintaining proper ethical standards? This is a continuing question we must draw from this story.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See, further, Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit, Vaychi 5, What if Joseph Hates Us.
2 See Rashi, Bereishit 50:16.
3 Ramban points to Yaakov’s statements regarding Ruvain, Shimon and Levi in his final blessing to his sons (Bereishit Chap. 49) as a further indication that Yaakov did not know of the sale. As Yaakov mentioned the misdeeds of these three sons even at this time, if Yaakov knew of the sale, it would be expected that he would mention this misdeed also at this time. A distinction, however, does exist in this regard. Clearly Shimon and Levi disagreed with their father on his assessment of their actions believing their destruction of Shechem to be proper. We also have no indication that Ruvain changed his mind in regard to the propriety of his action. It may be that Yaakov thus mentioned these actions in his final words to reinforce his continued call for them to confront what Yaakov felt were incorrect viewpoints. In regard to the sale, though, the brothers already clearly repented so it is quite possible that, even if Yaakov knew of it, he would not have mentioned it in his final words. In any event, though, Ramban clearly states that Yaakov did not know.
4 See, Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Bereishit 45:3.
5 See, for example, Ramban, Bereishit 42:9.
6 It should be noted that there are those who find this approach problematic as, they argue, it would be wrong for Yosef to so limit his time with his father.
© Nishma 2017