The major turn of events in the story of Joseph and his brothers occurs in this week’s parasha, Vayigash. The story begins when Jacob favors Joseph over his other sons. In addition, Joseph’s dreams implied he saw himself as the future leader of the family. As a result, the brothers took advantage of a time when they were alone with Joseph, far from their father, and wanted to kill him.
Judah, one of the older brothers, suggested selling Joseph into slavery in lieu of killing him. The brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, who took him down to Egypt, where he was sold into slavery. A few more twists and turns happened in Joseph’s story while in Egypt; after spending some time in an Egyptian prison, he rose to greatness as Pharaoh’s viceroy.
While this was happening, the brothers resided with their father, Jacob, in Canaan. A severe drought there led to a famine, and they were forced to go down to Egypt to purchase grain that had been hoarded in central silos following Joseph’s wise advice. When the brothers reached Egypt, they appeared before Joseph, the king’s viceroy, but Joseph did not reveal his true identity. He concocted a deliberate and complex manipulation in which he wanted to imprison his younger brother, Benjamin, using a false accusation, and he waited to see how the brothers would react.
That reaction appears in this week’s parasha. It led to Joseph confessing his identity to his brothers which, in turn, led to the reunification of the entire family in Egypt. Joseph understood that the process was complete when Judah, who suggested selling Joseph into slavery, now asked to be a guarantor for Benjamin and was willing to pay with his own freedom for Benjamin’s. The brothers had chosen the path of mutual responsibility and not one of alienation. At that point, he revealed his identity. “I am Joseph.” Immediately afterward, he asked, “Is my father still alive?”
With these two utterances, Joseph caused a turnabout in his relationship with his brothers. Until now, they saw him as a stranger who was abusing them. From that moment, they grasped that he had led them to face a challenge, testing whether the family rift was still there or if the family’s wholeness was now a priority for them.
Joseph's elevator pitch
JOSEPH’S SHORT utterances remind us of the concept of the “elevator pitch” in which a person presents the service or product he wants to market in 10 seconds. This is a significant challenge since, in that short time, the message must be so focused and concise that it convinces his listeners of the efficiency and necessity of the service or product.
In five words, Joseph touched on the main point that would cause the turnabout in his brothers’ relationship with him. With the utterance “I am Joseph,” he solved the riddle of his behavior toward them in Egypt. With those words, he clarified the picture and led them to understand how he had wisely navigated them to the moment when they would have to decide whether to make a sacrifice of Benjamin, their little brother.
With the question “Is my father still alive?” Joseph pointed to the core of the story, forcing his brothers to focus on it. He could have focused on the harm they did him when they sold him into slavery. The brothers thought so themselves when they said to one another, “Indeed, we are guilty because of our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen.”
And the oldest brother, Ruben, said to his brothers, “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen?” The brothers acknowledged the harm they had done and regretted it.
But Joseph diverted their gaze to another person who had suffered from the sale of Joseph – Jacob. By asking his brothers “Is my father still alive?” he rebuked them for the great harm they caused him when they took his beloved son away.
By proving to his brothers that he was a noble man, that what disturbed him most was not that they had sold him into slavery but the terrible harm they caused their father, he lifted the tension to higher moral ground. This story isn’t about me, Joseph was saying. It’s about the father we are all obligated to respect. ■
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.