Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
Jacob and Joseph: A Father-Son Relationship
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
After Joseph was sold into slavery, why didn't he ever get in touch with his father Jacob? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman will help us attempt to look at the story through Joseph's eyes, and explore the possibility that Joseph assumed his father was in on the plot.
This new perspective helps us understand Joseph, and also his unique relationship with Pharaoh, who becomes the father figure in Joseph's life.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Miketz. This Parsha gives rise to one of the greatest questions people ask about Sefer B'Reshit: Why didn't Yosef write home? I mean here he is, he is the grand vizier, he's in charge of all the wheat of Egypt, his fortunes have turned fantastically. If he really loves his father, why doesn't he write him a postcard? 'Dad, everything is fine, I am here in Egypt, wishing you were here, love – Joseph.' Some contact. What is going on here?
Commenting on the Questions in Parshat Miketz
I want to sketch out to you a particularly fascinating answer to this question, that I became aware of while reading an article in the very first issue of Megadim, the Israeli-based Tanakh journal. This issue contained an extended debate between Rav Yaakov Meidan and Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and I am going to sketch out to you a piece of Rabbi Bin-Nun's view on this, along with some of my own additional thoughts. Rabbi Bin-Nun argues that to understand the answer this question you have to take a careful look at the Yosef story from the perspective of Yosef himself. One of the great challenges that face us whenever we read any story in the Bible is to understand that you the reader may know more than any individual person actually involved in the story. When you look at the Yosef story, the question you have to ask yourself is 'what do you know that Yosef doesn't know', and how does that change the story once you realize Yosef doesn't know it?
If you have read the story of the sale of Yosef, you become aware that there's a crucial fact that is hidden to Yosef. It's impossible for him to know it because it takes place after he has been loaded on to the Ishmaelite caravan and is starting his journey to Egypt. And that fact, is what the brothers did after Yosef was pulled out of the pit and loaded on to the caravan. What they did was they took a goat, they slaughtered it, put the blood on Yosef's coat and sent it to their father saying, "zot matzanu haker-na," this we have found, recognize, please, is it your son's coat or not?
Yosef doesn't know that that happened. He couldn't have known that it happened. He wasn't around for that. The question you have to ask yourself is, not knowing that that happened, not knowing about the bloody coat, how might that change Yosef's view of the story?
The Relationship Between Jacob and His Son Joseph
So let's go through the events of the sale of Yosef and ask what the story would look like from his perspective. All Yosef knows is this: he was seventeen years old and he had these dreams - these dreams that seemed to portend that he would rise to a position of power. He told these dreams to his brothers and they became jealous, and then he told the second dream not only to his brothers but to his father as well.
Now his father had loved him, but for the very first time, Yaakov castigates Yosef. He doesn't like this dream. What does this dream mean with the sun, the moon and the eleven stars, all bowing down to you? We are all going to come bowing to you?
And his father scolded him, he was angry at him, and then Yaakov sends him to Shechem to go check on his brothers. Shechem, of all places. What's been happening in Shechem lately? Shimon and Levi and the rest of the brothers undertook a commando raid to rescue Dinah that resulted in the wholesale death of an entire town. Shechem is a place soaked in blood, blood spilled by the brothers of Yosef. Now the brothers are angry, jealous of Yosef. They see him as a threat.
'Why don't you go check on your brother in Shechem?' Yaakov tells Yosef. Yosef sees it's dangerous. His answer, "hineini," here I am. "Hineini" is one of those words in the book of Genesis. What does 'hineini' remind you of? Who else said 'hineini' the famous 'hineini' in the book of Genesis? The 'hineini' of Avraham to God and in the story of the binding of Isaac. With that 'hineini,' doom was right around the corner for Yitzhak. With Yosef's 'hineini,' does Yosef realize the doom is right around the corner?
'I agreed, I went to Shechem, I said 'hineini' to you, I trusted that everything would be fine. ut everything wasn't fine. My brothers jumped me, stripped me of my clothes, threw me in the pit, sold me off to Egypt. That's what Yosef knows and now, what doesn't he know?
What Story Did Jacob Know About Joseph – and Vice Versa?
Tragically he doesn't know that the brothers brought the bloody coat to father, tricking father into thinking Yosef was dead. So from Yosef's perspective, what does he think happened next? For all he knows, maybe they came to back to father and said 'father, it was himb or us!' Maybe father himself saw Yosef as a threat. It's not like nobody have ever been kicked out of the family before.
- Avraham, Yitzhak and Ishmael. Avraham wanted to keep Ishmael around. Sarah didn't think it was a good idea. God sided with Sarah. That was the end of Ishmael.
- Yaakov and Esav. Esav got expelled from the family.
I'm down, I'm languishing in Egypt, year after year, there's never any search party. Maybe I was kicked out of the family.
Indeed Rav Yoel Bin-Nun points out - look at the names that Yosef gives to his two children: Menashe and Efraim. Menashe, the verse says, "ki nashani Elokim mi-kol amali u-mi-kol beyt avi," God has allowed me to forget, all of my toil, all of my travail at my father's house. Efraim: "ki hifrani Elokim b'eretz an'i," God has allowed me to become fruitful to have all these children and the land of my oppression. Yosef building a new life, leaving his old life behind. He will still be a God-fearing Jew, but what of the ties with his family? Does Yosef think he's been thrown out? That it's all over?
Joseph – Son of Jacob, or Pharaoh?
If you adopt this perspective, it changes the way you look at the Yosef story. It changes the way you look at Yosef and perhaps his relationship with Par'oh, with Pharaoh. Pharaoh pulls him out of the pit, this dungeon that he was in, says 'I hear you know how to interpret dreams? Could you interpret my dream?' Gives him new clothes, beautiful new clothes. Sets him up again as second in-charge, everything that Yosef would have wanted perhaps from his own father—'where were you when I was in the pit? Here's the man who takes me out of the pit. Where were you when I was stripped off from my clothes? Here's the man who gives me new clothes.' 'I didn't like your dream.' Here's a man who wants to tell Yosef dreams and hear his interpretation. Pharaoh gives Yosef a wife, gives him a new name. What kind of man gives you a new name, gives you a wife? A father kind of man. The challenge that faces Yosef – where does your loyalty lie now? Who is your real father?
And it's all very fine for Yosef to remain close to pharaoh now, while Yaakov is back still in Canaan, but what if Yaakov should ever be reunited with Yosef with pharaoh still in the background? That I believe sets up the real climax of the Yosef's story that takes place in Parshat Vayechi. But we’ll have to wait till Parshat Vayechi to talk about it. I’ll see you then.
Watch the next video in this series: Who Was Joseph's Real Father?