Reading through Chapter 42 from a panoramic perspective of history, one sees a premonition of many things in store for the descendants of Yaakov. The best way to read it is in the original Hebrew, but what follows is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation, from the Living Torah, along with my comments.
“When Yosef’s brothers arrived, they prostrated themselves to him, with their faces to the ground” in fulfillment of his first dream. “Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
This is sometimes the largest failing of the Jewish people. We are united when the world is united against us. Otherwise, our disagreements, and our definition of what makes someone Jewish, make us not even recognize who is our brother.
“You are spies!’ [Yosef] said to them. ‘You have come to see where the land is exposed to attack.”
Sure enough, some time in the future there will be ten spies who will have this intent. In that case, the ten spies will die, and those who listen to their report will be unable to enter the land.
“We are twelve brothers,’ they pleaded. ‘We are the sons of one man who is in Canaan. Right now the youngest brother is with our father, and one brother is gone.”
Their inability to explain Yosef’s whereabouts showed they were still in denial of their role in his disappearance. Though they had no reason to suspect he was dead, they weren’t up front about what happened to him.
“‘There is only one way that you can convince me,’” Yosef said. “‘By Pharaoh’s life, [all of] you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.”
What a strange idea, for Yosef to link their stay to a mention of Pharaoh! One could argue whether the Jewish slaves were really bound, or whether they could have left at any time but wanted permission. There is a known Midrash that a group tried to leave Egypt early, a group from the tribe of … Ephraim, Yosef’s son. Moshe’s successor, Yehoshua, was from Ephraim too.
Yosef was showing that someone from his tribe would not be included in the ten spies, and that Ephraim might try to leave without Pharaoh’s say-so. “Let one of you go back and bring your brother.” This is an indicator that Yosef knew that all it would have taken was one person to protect him. But while Reuven did suggest they not kill him, Yosef was unaware of anyone defending him in any capacity.
“Yosef had them placed under arrest for three days.” The last time we saw a reference to a period of three days was when Yosef interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s officers at the end of last week’s parsha. They, too, were in prison, and received clarity after three days. Yosef was giving his brothers three days to cool off, after which he would give them clarity.
After Yosef let them go, keeping Shimon under arrest, “they said to one another, ‘We deserve to be punished because of what we did to our brother. We saw him suffering when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That’s why this great misfortune has come upon us now.’
“Reuven interrupted them: ‘Didn’t I tell you not to commit a crime against the boy? You wouldn’t listen. Now a [divine] accounting is being demanded for his blood’!” This is the first Yosef heard of anyone standing up for him. This is why he changed his plan and decided to put their money back in the bags.
In giving them money, with a promise not to see them unless they bring Binyamin, he recreated the scene. The brothers were being paid to bring the son of Rachel down to Egypt.
This was the ultimate test. Would they protect him, or let him be sold into slavery?
When they returned to their father and told him the whole story, he said, “‘You are making me lose my children! Yosef is gone! Shimon is gone! And now you want to take Binyamin! Everything is happening to me!’”
It’s fascinating to consider why Yosef kept Shimon behind. After all, Reuven was the oldest. Perhaps Yosef, having heard Reuven rebuke the brothers, viewed him as more innocent than the others, and so he took the next oldest as prisoner.
Reuven tried to take responsibility for Binyamin, in a way he did not with Yosef 22 years earlier. “Reuven tried to reason with his father. ‘If I do not bring [Benjamin] back to you,’ he said, ‘you can put my two sons to death. Let him be my responsibility, and I will bring him back to you.’”
Reuven’s comment here requires explanation, because most will assume, as Rashi does, that he is a fool to offer the deaths of his sons in exchange for Yosef and whatever might happen to Binyamin. As if Yaakov would be happy to lose two grandsons as a punishment for Binyamin’s disappearance!
The Taz explains that what Reuven was offering was his equivalence to two sons — in other words, his firstborn birthright — if he did not bring Binyamin back. And so it was. (Wise people should be careful with the things they say.) The person who ends up becoming equivalent to two tribes is Yosef!
The Taz writes that Yaakov’s response, recorded by Rashi as, “My son is a fool; does he not think his children are my children as well?” means that Reuven would need to contend in the future with the fact that his children are not split into two separate tribes. This becomes a moot point, because in the next chapter, Yehuda’s offer to take responsibility for Binyamin is accepted.
But Reuven’s comment, in light of Taz’s explanation, may explain why when Yaakov eventually blesses Ephraim and Menashe, he notes that they “will be like Reuven and Shimon to me.” Yaakov’s claim regarding Yosef’s children removes all rights of firstborn from the hands of Reuven and from his descendants.
Much of the Torah contains premonitions and prophetic statements that need to be examined carefully. Miketz is always read on Shabbat Chanukah. Where do we find references to the Chanukah story in the parsha? The experience of Yosef as ruler versus his brothers as subservient members of the Bnei Yisrael is a start. Read through the text, see what you find!
And be inspired by the reunion of this family afterwards, the ultimate model of Jewish unity.