While this question already seems to assume some answer or another (that of a 'deeper purpose'), I thought it strange that nobody has actually asked this question so far:

Yosef recognized his brothers, but instead of welcoming them, giving them grain, and inviting them to live near him as royalty (which he does later), he "speaks to them harshly", playing a tormenting game with them (imprisoning Shimon, returning their money, placing his cup in Binyamin's sack) causing them significant anguish. Not only does this distress his brothers, but - perhaps more importantly - Yosef's antics also cause his father Yaakov to further suffer. A corollary to this question (that's been asked) is, why didn't he just send a message to his father when he could, that he was alive and doing quite well for himself?

What was Yosef's plan, or motivation?


2 Answers 2


Like with so many of these questions, there are several approaches as to how to deal with this issue:

  1. While this approach is rejected by every commentator I've seen, I think it's worth mentioning at least as a rejected possibility: Yosef wanted to take revenge on his brothers for selling him. Besides for being an unacceptable interpretation because it makes Yosef HaTzaddik out to be a vengeful person, this also seems textually inadequate, as he wouldn't have tried to imprison Binyamin.

  2. R. Avraham ben HaRambam, quoting R. Shmuel ben Chofni, as well as the Ramban and many other commentators, explain that Yosef was trying to make sure that his dreams came to fruition. I used to think that this was a bad explanation, because, as R. Yitzchak Arama points out, how could Yosef cause his family so much pain just because of his dreams? Even if he thought his dreams were divine sings, let God worry about His plans; that shouldn't excuse paining his father for so long! Should Yirmiyahu have destroyed the Temple just because God told him that it would happen?! However, if Yosef felt the dream to be a form a prophecy, then just as a prophet has an obligation to tell his prophecy to others, perhaps a prophet also has an obligation to make sure that those prophecies are seen through. Yosef felt that God wanted Him to do this, and as a prophet he was making that judgement as something more important than the mitzvah of kibbud av v'em (much like Avraham understood the prophecy to sacrifice his son as overriding the general prohibition of murder)

  3. R. Yitzchak Arama, Abarbanel, and R. Hirsch (though there are important nuanced differences between these three commentators) basically understand that Yosef was trying to put the brothers in a position to do teshuvah, to repent for their selling of him, by causing them to regret their deeds and ultimately put them in a position where they would have to defend one of their brothers (i.e. Binyamin). This position is expounded upon and defended by R. Yaakov Medan, here.

  4. The Bechor Shor (36:26, 42:7) writes that when the brothers decided to sell Yosef instead of killing him, they did so on condition that he swear to them that he never reveal to their father how he landed up into slavery. Yosef thought that his brothers would also never tell their father that he is alive even if he revealed himself to them right away as viceroy of Egypt, and so he had to come up with an elaborate plan to force the brothers into telling Yaakov that Yosef became ruler of Egypt.

  5. R. Shimon Schwab in Me'ein Beis HaSho'eivah gives what I think is a very beautiful explanation. Yosef knew about the prophecy given to Avraham, that his decsendents would be 'strangers in a foreign land', and that those foreigners would enslave and oppress Avraham's offspring. Yosef, realizing the divine Hand that caused him to sit on the Egyptian throne, understood himself to be the vehicle through which Yaakov and his family would descend to Egypt. He thus devised a plan: he - and his children after him - would play the part of an evil, oppressive king, to fulfill the prophecy, but would all the while be secretly looking out for the benefit of B'nei Yisrael. This way, they would indeed be oppressed strangers, but in a land where the ruler actually, secretly, had their best intentions at heart, because he'd be one of them. This plan failed when Yosef became so overcome with emotion that he knew he couldn't go through the rest of his life putting on a facade of hatred every time he faced his brothers.

  6. R. Yoel bin-Nun, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, has a novel approach that was roundly criticized and garnered considerable debate when he published it in their first volumes of the Megadim journal. He suggests that Yosef was afraid that perhaps, like Yishmael and Eisav before him, his father Yaakov had actually rejected him and sent him away, never to take part in the heritage of Avraham and Yitzchak. Thus, he thought Yaakov might have been 'in' on the plan, and didn't reveal himself until he heard from his brothers that Yaakov was actually mourning for him for all these years. (While very creative, it's hard to read this into the pesukim)

  7. Several non-religious bible critics have understood that Yosef felt estranged from his long-forgotten family, and had little desire to reconnect with them, as he associated his entire family with his own painful past. The only exception was Binyamin, and he had devised a plot to 'kidnap' Binyamin so that he and the only brother that he loved could live in Egypt, far away from his former family. (The problems with this explanation are too numerous to list)

  8. R. Chanan Porat had another interesting suggestion: Yosef thought that his father and brothers had already forgotten about him, had moved on with their lives, and were happy with how it all turned out. At great personal sacrifice, Yosef thought that he should do whatever he could to remain 'dead', not to ruin the lives of his family members that they had recreated. I don't really understand how he explains Yosef's motivation for hiding his goblet in Binyamin's sack, though

  9. Rabbi Ari Khan has another novel explanation, built upon midrashim (and, it seems to me, similar to that of R. SR Hirsch). As summarized here, his interpretation is that Yosef was trying to elicit 'brotherly feelings', so that they would come to accept him once he did reveal himself - or better, if he would convince them to start inquiring about 'that Hebrew slave'. "Yosef was not looking to exact revenge on his brothers but to remind them that there was someone they had forgotten; he wanted them to seek him".

(numbers 5,6, and 7 came from this article)

  • 1
    It's not so much "I want them to repent for selling me", but "let's see if they're still the type of people who would sell me, as evidenced by whether they'll defend baby Benjamin. If not, what's the point of reunification."
    – Shalom
    Dec 23, 2014 at 14:50
  • @Shalom I agree if you're talking about R. Yitzchak Arama and R. Hirsch, not if you're explaining Abarbanel or citing R. Medan. Hence the important nuanced differences between these three commentators in number 3, though I thought them similar enough to group together Dec 23, 2014 at 14:52
  • Rav yaakov Medan has am alternate explanation presented as a response to Rav Yoel Bin Nun
    – andrewmh20
    Dec 13, 2015 at 17:21

Matt's answer is most complete. Allow me to take a different angle building on a dvar Torah I wrote in honor of my older son's bar mitsva this shabbat.

I think the reason Yosef causes so much anguish to his family is to get to one thing. He knew he and his brothers would be the fathers of the entire Jewish people, that all Jews would inherit their traits of character. But he realized there was a big flaw in them: a lack of brotherly love, a lack of ahdut (unity). He could not imagine that they could be the source of the Jewish people with such a flaw and wanted a tikun (reparation). So all he does is to force them to correct this major shortcoming, to force them back into ahdut.

How do we know this is Yosef’s goal? Because as soon as he reaches it, as soon as Yehuda tells Yosef that he will not give away Binyamin, Yosef starts to cry and reveals himself to his brothers.

This cry of Yosef is key. It is not so much a cry of joy, after all how could Yosef’s joy be complete when he hasn’t yet seen his father? I don’t think it is a cry of sadness either. It is the sort of cry that we feel when we touch something very deep, very pure, when we feel something new being created, for instance when we want to cry at a brit mila, when we feel the kdusha (sanctity) of a new Jew coming into the brit (alliance), or at a wedding when we feel the love of a new couple being born. In Yosef’s case this was the cry of feeling the ahdut of the Jewish people being created.

How do we know this? I think we can learn it from another cry of Yosef, a few psukim earlier when Yosef met Binyamin. Rashi explains that Yosef asks Binyamin if he has sons. Binyamin answers yes, 10, and the Torah gives their names: Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, etc. When we read these names we wonder why the Torah brings them, but Rashi and the Midrash tell us that Binyamin explains that each name represents a way for Binyamin to remember his brother Yosef. Bela shenivla ben umot haolam, Becher shehaya bechor leimo, naaman shehaya naim beyoter. Every time Binyamin looked at his sons, he remembered the brother he hadn’t known. And all 10 sons of Binyamin together represented for him his brother Yosef. When Yosef hears that he starts crying, of the cry of one who feels what real love is.

So in a nutshell the anguish was justified to create the required unity in Joseph's family - and should be a model for us of the required ahdut in the entire Jewish people.

  • 1
    Mazal tov! Your explanation (similar to #3 in Matt's answer) is also supported by the S'forno on B'reishis 42:22: "אין החטא הנדרש עתה האכזריות בלבד כאשר חשבתם אבל גם דמו שחטאתם לשפוך דם נקי שלא היה בן מות כאשר חשבתם והנה בלי ספק מת בעבדותו". Reuven rebukes the brothers that they still haven't appreciated the magnitude of their guilt and rectified their behavior. Yosef's goal, as you said, wasn't fulfilled until Yehuda and the brothers demonstrated their utter solidarity with Binyamin. +1.
    – Fred
    Dec 14, 2015 at 22:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .