Parsha Vayigash opens with the climactic moment in the Joseph saga. After having forced his brothers to bring down Benjamin by holding Simeon captive, Joseph plants his silver chalice in Benjamin’s bags and demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. This parsha opens with Judah’s heartfelt entreaty to Joseph to spare Benjamin’s life so that he may return to his father. This entreaty proves to be the story’s turning point; for Joseph, so overwhelmed by Judah’s pleas, can no longer go on with the charade and reveals himself to his brothers. Word is immediately brought back to Jacob who has been mourning Joseph these twenty-two years. Granted a new lease on life, Jacob and the entire family relocate to Egypt to live out the rest of their lives in prosperity and dignity.
The denouement of the Joseph story leaves us with lingering questions. It is well and good to see Joseph and Jacob reunited, but why did it have to take so long? Joseph had been the viceroy of Egypt for nine years – how difficult would it have been to send word to his father during this time? How could he have perpetuated his father’s despair? Why was he playing such cruel tricks on his brothers – first insisting that they bring Benjamin, and then falsely accusing them as thieves? How are we to understand Joseph’s motivation and psyche?
Nachmanides gives the most straightforward answer: Joseph was waiting for his dreams of greatness to come true. As viceroy in Egypt, he saw the possibility that his brothers would come and bow down to him, and that this would not come about if his father knew of his whereabouts. He thus sent no word to his father. When his brothers did, finally, come and bow down to him, he saw that Benjamin was absent. His dream of eleven stars required that all eleven brothers would bow to him, and he thus insisted that Benjamin come down as well. Finally, his motivation for hiding his chalice in Benjamin’s sack was to see whether his brothers had truly repented of their murderous jealousy of him. If they would come to the defense of Benjamin, another favorite child, it would be clear that they had changed. Once Joseph saw that the dreams had been fulfilled and that his brothers were changed people, he revealed himself to them and informed his father that he was still alive.
Although Nachmanides believes that Joseph’s actions are justifiable, most of us cannot be happy with Joseph’s choices. How can we approve of a choice that brings about the fulfillment of one’s dreams over the pain of one’s father? Was it appropriate for him, another flawed human, to test and judge his brothers’ contriteness? Joseph seems to be playing God! As the Talmud says in another context: “Such considerations of God – what are they your concern? You have only to do what is your responsibility!” Let God run the world.
How then are we to understand Joseph’s actions? Simply, Joseph’s actions were improper. This does not mean that Joseph is undeserving of his position in the pantheon of Biblical heroes. Joseph’s greatness is in his development from an immature, self-absorbed child into a charismatic, self-assured adult, who comes to understand God’s centrality in the workings of the world. However, at this point in the story, Joseph still sees himself as God’s right-hand man. He still has to learn that God, not he, ultimately directs events, that God will take care of judging others, of seeing that His plan for history is carried out. Josephs shortcomings teach us that we must be modest not just with our fellow man, but with God. Our faith cannot translate into arrogance. What we believe to be God’s plan cannot preempt our responsibilities. It is our responsibility to serve God, not to play God.