Reproof and Rebuke

Yosef’s brothers have no idea of what is going on. They come to Egypt to purchase grain, instead they are treated like spies and thrown into jail. They are released on the condition that they return with their youngest brother Binyamin, but when they do so they are again arrested on trumped up charges. When Yosef threatens to keep Binyamin as a slave and send the others back to their father, Yehuda finally confronts him. This elicits a response which is even more puzzling. Yosef sends all the Egyptians out of the room, breaks down and cries. It is only when he says to them “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45; 3) that the brothers realise what has been happening. But with those few words Yosef’s brothers suddenly have a clear understanding, not only of what has occurred during the past few weeks, but for the whole 22 years since they had sold their brother. “And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified before him” (ibid.).

The Midrash (Yalkut Vayigash 152) comments on this: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said “Woe to us from the day of judgement, woe to us from the day of tochecha (rebuke). Yosef was one of the youngest of the brothers, yet his brothers were unable to stand before him because they were terrified. When G-d will come and rebuke each and every person for their actions how much more terrifying will it be!”

This Midrash needs explanation. Where do we find that Yosef rebuked his brothers? All he said to them was “I am Yosef”, and immediately “they were unable to answer him”. Rashi (Genesis 45; 3) explains that they were not terrified of Yosef that he may harm them, but rather because of embarrassment. But the question remains, where is the rebuke that the Midrash mentions?

The brothers had sold Yosef 22 years earlier because of his dreams. He told them all that he would become ruler over them and that they would have to bow down before him. His brothers saw this as an act of rebellion against Yehuda, from whom all future kings of Israel would be descended, and therefore sentenced him to death. In an act of mercy they commuted that sentence, and sold him as a slave to passing traders. Their primary motivation in all of this was to ensure that his dreams did not come to fruition. After all this time had passed, seeing that their father Ya’akov was not consoled over Yosef’s death, the brothers resolved to try and find him when they were in Egypt. This is why they came into Egypt separately; they split up to search for Yosef (Rashi ibid. 42; 3). This in fact was the pretext that Yosef used to accuse them of spying. Where did they look for him? They expected to find Yosef in the slave markets, and were prepared to redeem him. The last place that they thought he would be was on the throne of Egypt, which is why the idea never crossed their minds, despite all the hints that Yosef gave them.

With the two words “Ani Yosef” (I am Yosef), his brothers were forced to admit that they had been wrong about everything from the very beginning. They suddenly realised that selling Yosef had not thwarted his dreams, but had caused them to come true. They had to admit that they had misjudged Yosef, and should not have sold him or mistreated him, because he had been absolutely correct all along. They had to confess that the past 22 years that they had been deceiving their father, and letting Yosef suffer in prison, had been a mistake. They were forced to admit that Yosef had not been just a ‘dreamer’, but a prophet in his predictions.

The Hebrew word tochechameans not only “rebuke”, but also “proof” (as in English - “reproof”). When Yosef revealed himself to his brothers he proved to them the error of their ways. This is the strongest reproof that there can be. This explains the Midrash. There are two components to G-d’s future judgement of us; “Woe to us from the day of judgement”, when G-d replays the video of our lives and shows us the things that we have done wrong. “Woe to us from the day of rebuke” when, upon seeing this video we will be forced to concede that we have transgressed, and that it has been without just cause, and furthermore that it has not helped us to attain the goals that we were hoping for.


Secret Messages and Physical Protection

The Torah tells us that at first Ya’akov refused to believe his sons that Yosef was alive. Only when “they related the words that Yosef had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him” then “the spirit of their father Ya’akov was revived” (Genesis 45; 27). With the words and the wagons, Yosef managed to convey the conclusive message to his father that he was alive, which carried more weight than the words of the other brothers. The Torah does not tell us what the secret code words were that Yosef sent to his father, but Rashi (on verse 27) cites the Talmud which explains the riddle of the wagons. “He gave them a sign. When Yosef last saw his father he had been learning the section of egla arufa (the calf used as atonement when a corpse is discovered and the murderer cannot be found) with him.” The Hebrew word for wagon (agala), is the same root as the word for calf (egla), therefore when Ya’akov saw the wagons he realised that it must be a message from Yosef, and not an impostor.

There are two problems with this interpretation of the message from Yosef. Firstly, how did Ya’akov know to interpret the wagons as a play on words of the final section he had learnt with his son. After 22 years how could Yosef even be sure that his father would remember what their final words together were? Secondly, if we look at the preceding section we find that the wagons were not sent at Yosef’s initiative, but at the directive of Pharaoh. “Pharaoh told Yosef ... ‘Now you are instructed to do the following: take wagons from Egypt for your small children and wives, and also use them for your father....’ ... Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions, and he also provided them with food for the journey.”

The egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement brought by the heads of a city which is nearest to where a dead body is found. There is an elaborate public ceremony involving the Sanhedrin who must come from Jerusalem to measure distances and oversee the procedure. The whole event is intended as a very public message, not only to the unknown murderer, but to those who didn’t do enough to prevent the murder taking place. “The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilt blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it’.” (Deuteronomy 21; 7). Obviously they were not the murderers, but they are nevertheless responsible for allowing a wayfarer to pass through their city, without offering lodgings for the night and an entourage to protect them on their journey.

When Ya’akov sent Yosef to his brothers before they sold him the Torah states, “He sent him from the valley of Chevron” (Genesis 37; 14). This means that Ya’akov accompanied his son part of the way to Shechem in an attempt to prevent any danger befalling him. This is what the Talmud means when it states that the last portion they studied together was the egla arufa. Ya’akov was involved in teaching his son the importance of accompanying someone on a journey in order that they arrive at their destination safely. Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that Ya’akov never found out that it was the brothers who sold Yosef, and assumed that Yosef had become lost on the journey, and was kidnapped by others. So when Ya’akov saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to bring him to Egypt he understood that Yosef was offering him safe passage - the message of the egla arufa. It was more than a play on words, Yosef was literally giving his father the same message that he had learnt from him when they last saw each other.

The first person in the Torah who made a point of sending an entourage to accompany a traveller was the Pharaoh of Avraham’s time (probably an ancestor of Yosef’s Pharaoh). “Pharaoh put men in charge of Avram, and they sent him on his way along with his wife and all that was his.” (ibid. 12; 20). This then is the paradigm for the message of the egla arufa. Even though it was Pharaoh who instructed the wagons to be sent to Ya’akov, he was continuing with his family tradition of accompanying travellers. Therefore the Torah uses seemingly redundant words, “Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions.” This too was what Yosef was telling his father. The new Pharaoh is like his grandfather, and provides protection for those who come into his realm.


Throughout his stay in Egypt, Yosef has shown himself to be a master politician. From his meteoric rise to the head of Pharaoh’s court. to his amassing the wealth of Egypt for the monarchy he has shown that he is firmly in control, and able to deal with the politics of each situation. So much so that at the end of this week’s portion he is able to move the population around, to make it easier for his family to “fit in” to Egyptian society. His brothers, on the other hand, have shown a dazzling ineptitude at knowing how to relate to Yosef as viceroy. To every question they respond with honesty and total naïveté. This is the reason that they are humbled before him, having admitted to having a younger brother, Binyamin, and thus being forced to bring him before Yosef. They are also at a complete loss to understand how the money they spent on buying grain, and later Yosef’s goblet appear in their bags after they leave his presence. It never occurred to them to take precautions so that nothing could be surreptitiously placed in their bags. And even as Yehuda approaches Yosef at the opening of the Torah reading, he speaks in an exceedingly honest and forthright manner. The brothers play straight into Yosef’s hands, and he is able to plan and predict their every move.

Yet even after Yosef has revealed himself, and he instructs his brothers on how to speak to Pharaoh, they ignore his advice and don’t deviate in any way from the bare truth. Yosef tells his brothers “When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you must say ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock all our lives’. You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district”1. Yosef wants them to present a position of power. They are not “shepherds”, which was considered the most abominable profession by the Egyptians, rather they are dealers in livestock; they are not refugees fleeing from famine, but have come with all of their sheep, cattle and possessions to settle in Egypt. Yosef is concerned that Pharaoh not think that they are just poor vagrants dependant upon his mercy. Yosef has also planned the conversation so that they will not need to request that they be given Goshen to live, but that Pharaoh should offer it to them. In this way, Pharaoh will not be in a position to refuse them.

The brothers choose to ignore all of his expert advice, and instead tell Pharaoh “We are shepherds, we and our fathers before us. We have [only] come to stay in your land awhile, because there is no grazing for our flocks, so severe is the famine in Canaan. If you allow us, we will settle in the Goshen district”.2

Pharaoh cannot believe that these are the brothers of Yosef, his skilful counsellor. These men are so tactless, and worse, they are shepherds. Instead of replying to them Pharaoh completely ignores them, instead turning to Yosef to continue the conversation. He pretends that he has not heard that the brothers are shepherds, but tells Yosef that if any of his brothers are livestock officers they can be appointed over Pharaoh’s cattle.

Yosef is known as “Yosef the Tzaddik”, Yosef the righteous. He has passed the tests of faith with Potiphar’s wife, and in jail, and has succeeded in raising his sons as Torah observant Jews, despite being in a foreign environment. He has shown that he can survive and remain strong in his faith regardless of the people he is constantly in contact with. Therefore he is also able to play their game, and survive in the dog eat dog world of politics and diplomacy. His brothers, however, are more susceptible to outside influences. When Yehuda left his other brothers and set up in business, he was faced with the story of Tamar, and having to admit that he behaved wrongly while she was right. Reuven is punished for acting rashly to defend the honour of his mother. Their strength is that they can admit when they have made a mistake, and do T’shuva, but they can’t risk putting themselves in challenging situations. That is why before they even go to Egypt, Ya’akov sends Yehuda ahead to set up a suitable Torah environment3. Therefore, even when faced with the most powerful men in the known world, Pharaoh, or his viceroy, they have no option but to stick totally to the truth. They are prepared to risk humiliation, and even death, rather than risk falling into the trap of assimilation into Egyptian society. Even though Yosef only asks them to colour the truth a little bit, they realise that even changing their identity, and the way that they are perceived, slightly could be enough to cause them to lose sight of who they are and how they must remain, in order to withstand the coming 210 years in Egypt.

1Genesis 46; 33
2ibid. 47; 3
3Genesis 46; 28 and Rashi’s commentary there