Yosef and the Evolution of a Nation

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The truth was out and the story was spreading fast – Yosef had revealed himself to his brothers, and an epic reunion ensued. Upon hearing the news about his trusted prime minister, Pharaoh reacts in the way one would expect: (Bereishis 45:16): 

“The news was heard in Pharaoh's house that Yosef 's brothers had come. This was good [news] in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.”

In a magnanimous gesture, Pharaoh invites all of Yosef’s extended family to Egypt, promising them the best of the land during their stay. Based on the grandness of the gesture and the fact that Yosef had steered Egypt through an unprecedented agricultural crisis, it was expected that once his family was all reunited, they would come to meet Pharaoh. One would also assume that the meeting would be characterized by camaraderie and goodwill. However, when Yosef discusses the upcoming encounter with his brothers, he takes the measure of prepping his brothers regarding exactly what they should say to Pharaoh. He even goes so far as to only allowing Pharaoh to meet five of his brothers. Why was Yosef so careful about this meeting? Why did the conversation need to be scripted? Why were some brothers excluded? Why not let the seemingly genuine emotions surrounding this significant occasion emerge naturally? Though a meeting with the king is not an inconsequential matter, his actions and precautions seem a bit extreme.

In the run-up to this meeting, Yosef instructs his brothers as follows (ibid 46:31-33):

“Yosef said to his brothers and to his father's household, ‘I will go up and tell Pharaoh. I will say to him, 'My brothers and my father's household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. The men are shepherds, for they are owners of livestock. Their sheep, their cattle, and all their possessions, they have brought [with them.]'  And when Pharaoh calls you, and says, 'What is your occupation,' You should say, 'Your servants have been livestock owners from our youth until now, we and our fathers;' so that you will be able to settle in the land of Goshen, since every shepherd is abhorrent to Egypt.’”

It could not be any clearer how Yosef was “guiding” his brothers in their impending conversation with Pharoah. After explaining a bit about his brothers to Pharaoh, Yosef offers an odd introduction (ibid 47:2): 

“From among his brothers, he took five men, and he presented them to Pharaoh.” 

Why just take five of his brothers? Rashi explains (ibid):

“From the least strong among them, who do not [even] appear strong, for if he [Pharaoh] would find them strong he might induct them into his military.”

Therefore, to avoid any chance of any of the brothers being drafted (the first example of draft dodging in history), Yosef wants the brothers to project an image of physical weakness. Why go to all this trouble? What was Yosef’s thinking here?

The answer may lie in the portion preceding the reunion between Yosef and his father. Yaakov, upon finding out that Yosef was alive, sets out to Beer Sheba on the way to Egypt. After his arrival, God communicates with him, reassuring Yaakov not to be afraid when going down to Egypt because a great nation would be emerging from him. What was Yaakov’s fear? The Sforno (ibid 46:3) explains that Yaakov’s fear centered on this pivotal decision to move everyone down to Egypt. While he was aware of the eventual galus that would befall his future generations, the details of the Divine Plan – the necessity of Egypt as their future home – was beyond his knowledge. Seeing God’s guiding of events, and being reassured that the path led to Egypt, he was concerned as to the effect this move would have on the fledgling nation. God’s message to Yaakov was that the future nation could not withstand long term existence in the Eretz Canaan of that time. The situation was ripe for assimilation and the nation’s comfort level in their surroundings would essentially become an obstacle to their ideological evolution. At this early stage, to be placed in such an environment would result in the destruction of the Jewish people. Residing in Egypt would ultimately avoid this fate. In order to flourish, Bnai Yisrael needed to be isolated to allow for positive growth. Egypt was the best location to achieve this objective. At the time, the Egyptians found much of the Jewish “culture” repugnant, noted in their unwillingness to even dine with Ivrim (ibid 43:32). The Egyptians’ aversion would create definitive social boundaries, allowing for the nation to grow and thrive separate from Egyptian society. As pointed out by the Sforno (and recited in the haggada), Bnai Yisrael were “distinctive” (metzuynaim) while in Egypt, testament to the clear separation between themselves and Egyptian society. 

It was the news that Yosef was alive that eventually allowed for Yaakov to see how the Divine Plan was unfolding. Yosef, though, understood through his encounters with his brothers, that ultimately the future of Bnai Yisrael would unfold in Egypt. He realized, much like Yaakov came to understand through prophecy, the necessity of keeping his family separated from Egyptian society. This was what steered him in his dealings between his brothers and Pharaoh. The first step in this process was directing his family to the locale of Goshen (ibid 45:10). We see Yosef instructing Yehudah to take the lead, arranging for the arrival of the family (46:28). Interestingly, Rashi (ibid) notes that, according to the Midrash, Yehudah’s intent was to set up a house of learning in Goshen. The idea he is trying to convey is the importance of establishing a solid ideological foundation in the land where they would all reside. Goshen was not simply going to be a quick trip. It was to be the center of Jewish life, and Yehudah was given the task of setting the foundation for it prior to the family’s arrival.

With the location for his family set, Yosef proceeds with his discussion with the brothers. To simply ask for a separate area to live in would only arouse suspicion and mistrust from Pharaoh. This drove Yosef to ensure that certain details were emphasized in the brothers’ dealings with Pharaoh.  Yosef had the brothers accentuate the fact that they had been shepherds their whole lives – “from our youth until now” – demonstrating to Pharaoh that they were not opportunists coming to take advantage of the situation in Egypt. He also knew that the Egyptians viewed shepherding negatively, which would mean that he would be inclined to offering them a separate area of land in which to reside. Thus, we see Yosef guiding his brothers for the sole purpose of gaining Pharaoh’s willing approval to their settling in Goshen. 

Yet this was not enough, demonstrated through Yosef’s only allowing the five “weakest” brothers to meet Pharaoh. Was Yosef’s concern merely fear of death in battle, or was there something deeper here? Yosef’s primary objective was to create a physical and ideological separation between Bnai Yisrael and the Egyptians. Yosef recognized that preventing integration went beyond geography. Being drafted into the army would also sow the seeds for future assimilation. A soldier must fight for his country, and the nationalism and patriotism that evolves in order to do that becomes intrinsic. Obviously, allegiance to Egypt would be antithetical to Yosef’s plan. This is not to say that fighting for one’s country as a Jew is, by definition, harmful. For an individual, it could demonstrate a tremendous hakaras hatov (recognition of good received). However, to the burgeoning nation, at the beginning stages of its evolution, this would have posed tremendous danger to the future of Klal Yisrael. Therefore, Yosef ensured that Pharaoh would have no reason to enlist the brothers and would leave them to shepherding.

A momentous event was taking place in the history of the Jewish people – the relocation of Yaakov and his sons to Egypt. Yaakov, through prophecy, came to understand the rationale for this displacement. The brothers’ encounters with Yosef, and the unveiling of the God’s plan, helped Yosef understand what was to take place. Yosef’s orchestration of the events was not just motivated by the desire to keep the brothers out of harm’s way, but to ensure the ideological well-being of the future Bnai Yisrael. At this stage in the evolution of Bnai Yisrael, it was up to Yosef to help bring about the Divine Plan. And as we see, through his intelligent plan, the future was secure.