Today we’re going to explore a very simple question. Did Yaakov know that Yosef was alive? (Let us clarify: An answer of “yes” this does not mean that Yaakov knew Yosef was a ruler in Egypt.)
Let us consider the evidence:
After hearing of Yosef’s dream of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, the Torah gives us Yaakov’s reaction: “His father scolded him and said, ‘What kind of dream did you have? Do you want me, your mother, and your brothers to come and prostrate ourselves on the ground to you?’ ”
Obviously this interpretation of the dream was incorrect (assuming Yaakov was interpreting) because Yaakov, Rachel (who was dead) or the 11 brothers never bowed to Yosef.
Shortly thereafter, Yaakov sent Yosef to find his brothers in Shechem. After Yosef is sold, the brothers present Yosef’s coat to their father who cries (37:33), “It is my son’s coat! … A wild beast must have eaten him! My Joseph has been torn to pieces!”
Rashi, Targum Yonatan (and others) and a number of midrashim tell us that in referencing an animal tearing him up, Yaakov was referring to the wife of Potiphar who tried to seduce Yosef. If we think about it, this makes sense. The brothers produced a torn coat but no piece of a body. It stands to reason that Yaakov considered that Yosef was not dead.
What about the next two verses? In 37:34-35, we are told that Yaakov “tore his robes in grief and put on sackcloth. He mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters tried to console him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘I will go down to the grave mourning for my son,’ he said.”
However, using a principle of “al tikrei,” which is employed in the Talmud over 100 times, we can suggest that when it says “he mourned for his son” (b’no) the term could mean “for his sons” (banav) and when he says “I’ll go down to the grave mourning for my son” (b’ni) it could mean “for my sons” (banai). Why might he be mourning for his sons? For the rift between them, and their hubris in getting rid of their brother, and their lying to their father to cover up their shameful deed.
In this light, we can understand why his “sons and daughters” (possibly daughters-in-law or granddaughters) could not comfort him, because until they were able to face the devils in their hearts, he could never be comforted by them.
Recall that all players involved in transferring Yosef down to Egypt were direct descendants of Avraham (Radak). Whether it was Yishmaelites (37:28, 39:1), Midianites (37:28), Medanites (37:36), they came from Avraham’s wife Hagar/Keturah (see 25:2). Kli Yakar suggests that when the brothers said “let’s sell him to the Yishmaelites and our hand will not be upon him for he is our brother” that the point of “he is our brother” was referring to the Yishmaelites, who would certainly not harm their second cousin.
Which leads us to the next piece of evidence. In 37:25, we are told what the Yishmaelites were carrying down to Egypt — n’khot, tzri and lot (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates these items to be gum, balsam, and resin, though their absolute identification is subject to dispute). In any case, when Yaakov sends the brothers to Egypt with Binyamin, he sends them with a peace-offering gift for the ruler in Egypt — tzri, d’vash, n’khot, lot, botnim and shkeidim (which Rabbi Kaplan translates to “a little balsam, a little honey, and some gum, resin, pistachio nuts and almonds”).
There is a much broader discussion to be had about what Yosef was trying to accomplish through getting Binyamin down to Egypt. Was he trying to save Binyamin from the dangerous brothers? Was he trying to reenact what happened to him, when a son of Rachel was brought down to Egypt potentially to be a slave, and would the brothers protect him?
Which brings us to Yaakov. Had he gotten a report from his cousins about their “special guest” who had been delivered to Egypt? Did he know Yosef was alive, even if he had been sold as a slave? Perhaps Yaakov understood that Yosef needed to be away for a long time, because he had been away from his own parents for a long time.
Was Yaakov in on the plot to see his sons reunited? Why, for example, does Yaakov not accept the offer of Reuven to protect Binyamin, but jumps at accepting Yehuda’s offer? Who was more responsible for Yosef’s being sold — Reuven (who wasn’t present at the sale) or Yehuda (who had raised the idea, and was likely the broker for the exchange, if the brothers in fact sold him)? Yehuda needs to prove that he is a uniter now, and not a divider.
And the last piece of evidence is that when the brothers return after their reunion with Yosef, what gives Yaakov a new lease on life is the news brought to him by his sons, the ones who had been divided so long ago, that (a) Yosef was alive, and (b) that he was a moshel (ruler) in Egypt.
Recall that the word moshel was one of the first sources for the breach of trust between the brothers and Yosef: “Do you intend to rule (timshol) over us?” (37:8)
Now that Yosef indeed “rules” in Egypt, and the brothers are clearly OK with it, Yaakov sees that what he mourned over (the breach in the family relationships at home that caused him so much pain) are behind them.
It’s a fascinating vantage point to consider, that what caused more pain to Yaakov than the possible loss of his child is the deceit and friction that existed between his children. Anyone who suffers from a lack of communication from living children, or who sees siblings who do not get along or talk to one another, knows how painful such a reality can be.
May we all be blessed to find that familial peace, in much less time than the 22 years it took for Yaakov’s children to be reunited.