The Great Experiment

Yosef and his brothers in a family reunion. Image created by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

It is one of the most dramatic moments in Bereishit, a book full of dramatic moments. Judah has made a passionate plea for Benjamin’s release. Yes, the missing silver cup has been found in his possession. Judah does not challenge the facts. Instead he throws himself on the mercy of the Egyptian ruler, of whose identity he is still unaware. He asks him to think of the impact Benjamin’s imprisonment will have on his father. He has already lost one beloved son. The shock of losing another will kill him.

Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father.

These are the words that finally break Joseph’s heart. He is overcome with emotion. He commands all his attendants to leave, turns to his brothers, and reveals his identity:

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

Their silence is eloquent. They are bewildered. The stranger turns out to be their brother. The ruler of Egypt is the young man that, years earlier, they had sold as a slave. The combination of shock and guilt paralyses them.

Breaking the silence, Joseph continues. He has yet another surprise for them. He does not hold them guilty. There is no anger in his words. Instead he does the least expected thing. He comforts them. He forgives them. He speaks with a majestic graciousness:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

With this, the long story reaches closure. The estrangement, which began with the words, ‘[The brothers] hated him and could not speak peaceably to him,” is at an end. Joseph is, as he twice dreamed he would be, a ruler. His brothers have bowed down to him. He has survived their attempt to kill him. He has risen from slavery to become the second most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the ancient world. But a question remains. What kind of story is this? What is its theme? What has been driving Joseph in these successive encounters with his brothers?

First, let us recall the sequence of events. Some time earlier, the brothers had come before Joseph for the first time. He recognises them. They do not recognise him. He “speaks harshly” to them, accusing them of being spies. He puts them in prison for three days.

He then releases them, holding Shimon as a hostage, telling them that they must bring Benjamin with them next time, to verify their story. Unbeknown to them, he has the money they had paid for the grain put back into their sacks. When they discover this, they are unnerved again. Something is happening to them, but they do not know what.

Eventually the food runs out and they have to return. It takes much persuasion on the part of Judah to convince Jacob to let Benjamin come with. This time, Joseph greets them with warmth, inviting them to eat with him. Eventually, having provided them with fresh supplies of grain, he sends them on their way. Now, however, he does more than place money in their sacks. He has his favourite divination cup placed in Benjamin’s grain.

The brothers have left the city, relieved that the visit has been unexpectedly painless. No sooner have they gone than they are overtaken by Joseph’s steward. Someone has stolen his master’s silver cup. The brothers protest their innocence. The steward searches their bags, starting with the eldest. Finally they reach Benjamin, and there, in his sack, is the cup. It is their worst nightmare come true. They knew that having once come home without Joseph, they could not lose Benjamin also. Judah had staked his honour on it. So the brothers appear before Joseph once more, and the drama moves toward its climax.

What is the logic of this sequence of events? The first possibility, suggested by the Torah itself (“Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them: You are spies”), is that Joseph was acting so as to fulfil his childhood dreams, in which his family bowed down to him.

This, however, cannot be the case. Before Joseph acts like a stranger, we read “When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground” (42: 6). If the story were simply about the fulfilment of Joseph’s dreams he should have devised a strategy that would bring the whole family, including Jacob and Benjamin, to Egypt. Jacob would have bowed down to him, the dreams would be fulfilled, and Joseph could then reveal his identity. Nothing of this kind happens. Joseph’s actions do not advance, but actually delay, this outcome. Therefore Joseph was not acting so as to fulfil his dreams.

The second possibility is that the Joseph story is a tale of revenge. He is making his brothers suffer as they once made him suffer. This too is untenable. At every significant stage (42:24, 43:30, 45:1-2), Joseph turnsaside to weep , careful not to let the brothers see him in this state. People engaged in revenge do not weep. That is why we are told this detail three times – precisely to exclude the possibility that Jacob was acting out of desire to do to his brothers what they once did to him. Those who repay evil with evil take satisfaction in so doing. Joseph takes no satisfaction at all. It is clear that he is acting against his inclination and that it causes him pain. The question therefore returns in full force. What is the logic of Joseph’s carefully constructed plot?

One of the key concepts of Judaism – the theme of its holiest days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – is teshuvah, a complex term involving remorse, repentance and return. The abstract noun teshuvah is post-biblical, but the idea it embodies is central to the Hebrew Bible. It is what the prophets call on Israel to do. It is what Jonah is sent to Nineveh to achieve. In a related sense it is what certain sacrifices (guilt and sin offerings) were intended to accompany.

Teshuvah, as analysed by the Sages and later by Maimonides, has certain key elements. The first is confession and acknowledgement of wrongdoing:

How does one confess? The penitent says, “I beseech you, O Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before you, and have done such and such, and I repent and am ashamed of my deeds.”

The second in to commit oneself not to repeat the offence:

What he has repentance? It consists in this, the person abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it, as it is said, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts.”

There is a further condition of complete repentance. This is how Maimonides puts it:

What is perfect repentance? It occurs when an opportunity presents itself for repeating the offence once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the offence, nevertheless refrains from doing so because he is penitent, and not out of fear or failure of vigour.

As soon as we understand these three points, the logic of Joseph’s course of action becomes clear. The drama to which he subjects his brothers has nothing to do with the dreams, or with revenge. To the contrary, Joseph is not acting for himself but for the sake of his brothers. He is taking them – for the first time in recorded history – through the three stages of teshuvah.

Recall what happened as a result of his intervention. His initial move was to accuse them of a crime they have not committed (of being spies) to see whether this would remind them of a crime they did commit (selling their brother into slavery). The effect is immediate:

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished [aval ashemim anachnu] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” . . . They did not realise that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

The brothers have confessed and expressed remorse for what they did. The first stage of teshuvah has taken place.

The second takes place far away from Joseph, but he has so arranged matters that he will know whether it has happened or not. Joseph is holding Shimon as hostage (This is a significant detail. Shimon is the second oldest of the sons. By rights he should have held Reuben, the eldest. However, he knows that Reuben was the one brother who tried to save him. Shimon is therefore the eldest of those who conspired to kill Joseph). He tells the brothers that he will only release him if they return with Benjamin. Knowing his father as he does, Joseph has calculated, rightly, that Jacob will only let Benjamin go if his sons have convinced him that they will not let happen to him what they let happen to Joseph. This indeed happens when Judah says to Jacob:

“I myself will guarantee [Benjamin’s] safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.”

The second condition of repentance has been achieved: a commitment not to repeat the offence. Judah, on behalf of the brothers, undertakes not to let happen this time what happened last time, namely that they returned without their youngest sibling whose safety they should have guaranteed.

The third act is a master-stroke. Joseph constructs a scene – one could almost call it a controlled experiment – to see if his brothers have indeed changed. They had once sold him into slavery. He now puts them in a situation in which they will have overwhelming temptation to repeat the crime by abandoning Benjamin to slavery. That is why he plants the cup in Benjamin’s sack, arranges for him to be accused of theft, rules that his punishment will be to remain in Egypt as a slave, and tells the other brothers that they are free to leave.

Why Benjamin? Because he, like Joseph, is a son of Rachel – and therefore envied and despised by the other brothers. There is, of course, one difference. The brothers’ resentment of Joseph was heightened by the jealousy they felt at the sight of the many-coloured robe Jacob had given him. How can he put them into a similar situation now? How can he provoke them into being jealous of Benjamin? This is what he does: when he sits the brothers down for a meal he arranges that they be seated in order of age (Benjamin is the youngest) and then that “Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s” (43:34). There is only one explanation for this strange detail. Joseph is trying to make them jealous of their youngest brother.

As far as possible, the circumstances of their original crime have now been replicated. Their youngest brother, a child of Rachel, is about to be taken as a slave in Egypt. They have reason to be jealous of him as they were of Joseph. They rise to the challenge. As Benjamin is about to be taken into custody, they offer to join him in prison. Joseph declines: “Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you go back to your father in peace.”

The moment of trial has now begun. Joseph has offered the brothers a simple escape route. All they have to do is walk away. It is then, when “Judah went up to him and said . . .” that the story reaches its climax. Judah, the very brother who was responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, now offers to sacrifice his own freedom rather than let Benjamin be held as a slave.

The circumstances are similar to what they were years earlier, but Judah’s behaviour is now diametrically opposite to what it was then. He has the opportunity and ability to repeat the offence, but he does not do so. Judah has fulfilled the conditions set out by the Sages and Maimonides for “complete repentance.” As soon as he does so, Joseph reveals his identity and the drama is at an end.

Not dreams, not revenge, but teshuvah is what has driven Joseph all along. His brothers once sold him as a slave. He survived – more than survived, he has prospered. He knows (he says so constantly) that everything that has happened to him is somehow part of God’s plan. His concern is not for himself but for his brothers. Have they survived? Do they realise the depth of the crime they committed? Are they capable of remorse? Can they change? The entire sequence of events between the brothers’ first arrival in Egypt and the moment Joseph tells them who he is, is an extended essay in teshuvah, a precise rehearsal of what will later become normative Jewish law.

Why now? Because – unbeknown to any of the participants – the family of Abraham is about to undergo exile in Egypt, prior to their becoming a nation under the sovereignty of God. That will place more demands on Israel than on any other people in history. God knows that they will often fail – they will sin, complain, worship idols, break His laws. That He accepts, though at times it gives Him great grief. God does not demand perfection. By giving us freewill He empowers us to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge our mistakes and commit ourselves not to make them again – in a word, that we are capable of teshuvah. Judah showed they were. Jewish history, starting with exile and exodus in Egypt, could now begin.

Wohl Legacy; Empowering Communities, Transforming Lives
With thanks to the Wohl Legacy for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation.
Maurice was a visionary philanthropist. Vivienne was a woman of the deepest humility.
Together, they were a unique partnership of dedication and grace, for whom living was giving.

More on Vayigash

The Space Between

“What do porcupines do in winter?” asked Schopenhauer. "How can they stay warm?" If they come too close to one another, they will injure each…


Maimonides called his ideal type of human being – the sage – a rofeh nefashot, a “healer of souls”.[1] Today we call such a person…

The Birth of Forgiveness

There are rare and special moments when the world changes and a new possibility is born: when the Wright brothers in 1903 made the first…

The Unexpected Leader

I was once present when the great historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, was asked to predict the course of events in the Middle East. He…

The Future of the Past

In our parsha, Joseph does something unusual. Revealing himself to his brothers, fully aware that they will suffer shock and then guilt as they remember…

Does My Father Love Me?

It is one of the great questions we naturally ask each time we read the story of Joseph. Why did he not, at some time…

The First Psychotherapist

The phrase “Jewish thinker” may mean two very different things. It may mean a thinker who just happens to be Jewish by birth or descent…

Choice and Change

The sequence from Bereishit 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is:…
Joseph and his brothers reunited. Image created by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

The Force of Forgiveness

Judah has passed the test so elaborately contrived by Joseph. Twenty-two years earlier, it was Judah who had proposed selling Joseph into slavery. Now Joseph…
Giant leaps for mankind. Astronauts jumping on the moon. Image created by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

Three Steps for Mankind

In his introduction to the Rabbinical Council of America’s version of the Artscroll Siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman has a lovely essay on the opening word…