Why Didn’t Yosef Send a Message to His Father for 22 Years?

It was the longest 22 years.

It was 22 years – lasting from when a 17-year old Yosef was enslaved to when a 39 year-old Yosef reunified with his family - in which Yosef didn’t communicate with his family.

All that non-communication abetted Yaakov’s agonized assumption that Yosef had died - that a “a wild beast … devoured” him.[1]

Yosef knew, of course, that his non-communication abetted that agony.

He also knew that his father’s that the agony could be reversed. To do that, Yosef just needed to send his father a letter. Such written proof that Yosef still lived would easily allay concerns about his death.

Yes, during Yosef’s first 13 years in Egypt – when he was a slave and a prisoner – he probably couldn’t have sent such a letter.

But it was only Yosef’s first 13 years in Egypt that were spent as a slave or in prison. After those 13 years, Yosef was appointed Egyptian viceroy. And it was only 9 years after that appointment that family came to Egypt. There were, then, 9 , when Yosef was a viceroy, when he could have sent his father such a letter.

But he didn’t.

Why not?

Because such a letter would cause problems. How? By prompting Yaakov to question Yosef about how he came to Egypt in the first place.

Those questions would have led to discussions. And such discussions could reveal Yosef’s brothers role in selling him into slavery that would cause them to “flee from Yaakov in …shame.”[2]

And Yosef didn’t want to cause problems.

So he withdrew. He avoided whatever may have led to disturbing conversations. He didn’t send a letter. And he didn’t establish contact.

And that’s why Yosef also withdrew from his brothers.

He does that when his brothers first came to Egypt, searching for food, 22 years after they’d sold him. That’s when Yosef, who saw them when selling them food: “recognized them…and he disguised himself ….so they didn’t recognize him.”[3] But he still disguises himself and withdraws.

And, here too, it’s not due to Yosef not wanting reunification.

He certainly wants reunification, warmth and love.

That’s seen in Yosef’s superhuman efforts at making fraternal reunification - when it finally occurs – as loving a possible. He does by assuaging the brothers’ guilt for having sold him into slavery: “don’t feel bad for selling me.…because Hashem sent me as a salvation.”[4]

Sure, Yosef wants positive reunification.

He just doesn’t want it right when his brothers come to Egypt.

And that’s because, at that point in time, Yosef rightfully worried about reunification’s problems

Those problems - like those that arose twenty two years earlier – stemmed from Yosef’s status as his father’s favored child.

Twenty two years earlier, the brothers suspected that Yosef would wield that status against them. Such suspicions - in a world where vying brothers commonly hurt one another[5] – weren’t unfounded. And that’s why the brothers sold Yosef into slavery.[6]

Yosef was worried that, even now in Egypt, such suspicions may cause fraternal conspiracies. And in Yosef’s world of Machiavellian royal intrigue, such conspiracies could be deadly.

He also knew that there may have been no reason for concern because the brothers may have bettered themselves.

How, then, could Yosef gauge how his brothers viewed him?

Certainly not by asking them. They’d undoubtedly flatter him with a positive answer, no matter what they really thought. Indebted, as they were, to Yosef for feeding their starving families, they couldn’t do otherwise.

Yosef, then, needed another way of gauging his brother real feelings. And the best way to do that was too gauge their relationship with his brother, Binyamin.

And that’s because Yosef’s and Binyamin’s similarities – similarities which we will now explore - meant that Binyamin’s fraternal relationships could be barometers for Yosef’s fraternal relationships.

And yes, so much about Binyamin mimicked Yosef.

Like Yosef, Binyamin was a child of Yaakov’s favored wife, Rachel.

Like Yosef, Binyamin was a child of Yaakov’s “old age.”[7]

And like Yosef, Binyamin was Yaakov’s favored child. It’s the following verse: “My son [Binyamin] will not go down [to Egypt] with you….because a tragedy might occur to him on the road that you are travelling.”[8] Yaakov isn’t letting Binyamin travel even though Yaakov is letting the other brothers travel. Why? Because Binyamin is seemingly favored.

Binyamin, then, was Yosef’s replica.

Which is why Yosef, as described in our parsha, levelled false accusations against Binyamin - and then watched the brothers’ reactions to those accusations.

If the brothers defended Binyamin, Yosef would know that their relationship with Binyamin was positive. Which meant that the fraternal relationship wit Yosef was also positive.

And if they didn’t defend Binyamin, Yosef would know that their relationship with Binyamin was negative. Which meant that the fraternal relationship with Yosef also negative.

The brothers, of course, most notably Yehuda through his proclamation: “Let me stay as a slave instead of [Binyamin],”[9] rallied behind Binyamin.

That demonstrated a positive fraternal relationship with Binyamin, and, therefore, also with Yosef.[10]

Yes, Yosef initially withdrew from both his father and his brothers,.

Those withdrawals, though, weren’t about growing apart.

Quite the reverse.

They were, rather, about creating the wherewithal to bring the family back together.

And therein lies a valuable lesson for all of us.

We may need to step back from an involvement or a relationship.

We may need to rethink a communal commitment.

That withdrawal, though, shouldn’t be about growing apart.

Not with friends. Not with family. And not with community.

It should, rather, be about finding a way to recalibrate that involvement or that relationship.

That withdrawal should be about growing back together.

[1] Bereishis 37:33

[2] Moshav Zekeinem, quoting Rabbeinu Shimshon, Bereishis 45:1

[3] Bereishis 42:7-8

[4] Bereishis 45:5

[5] Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishis 37:11-12

[6] Ad. loc.

[7] Bereishis 37:3. Rashbam, Bereishis 35:18

[8] Bereishis 42:38

[9] Bereishis 44:33

[10] Abarbanel, loc. cit.

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