Why did Yosef tell his brothers to bring his father down to Egypt? We know that leaving the land of Israel was not something taken lightly by the forefathers. It was done in times of famine and only as a last resort. According to Ramban – at least in the case of Avraham – it should not even have even been a last resort.
That Yosef wanted to see his father again is understandable and it could be that Yosef could not have left Egypt to do that. This could be for at least one of two reasons: 1) He could not be spared in the running of Egypt’s affairs in this time of crisis (Abarbanel); or 2) Pharaoh didn’t want to take any chances that he would stay in Israel permanently. Still, it is far from clear that Yosef’s desire to see his father justifies the latter’s displacement from the land of Israel. Another possible explanation would be that the family could not have sustained themselves in Israel and was brought down to save them. Indeed, Yosef basically says as much. But this is not obvious – what is really not possible for Yosef to send provisions to Israel? Several commentators follow Ramban in suggesting that the reason he could not do so is that it would have raised suspicions about his loyalty to Egypt. Hence he tells his father that staying put in a famine that was to last another five years would bring him to poverty. Yet we read of many lovers of Zion that have been prepared to live a life of poverty rather than move from God’s holy place. Even without Divine intervention – which in the case of the forefathers is the default – it is hard to believe that Ya’akov’s family would have starved to death (statements by Ya’akov, Yehudah and Yosef otherwise appearing to be mere hyperbole). So what truly moved Yosef to give such problematic instructions?
R. Moshe Alshich may be the only major classical commentator to confront the fact that there really is no justification on the peshat level. Hence, he offers an answer that relies upon suppositions not based in the text, positing that both Yosef and Ya’akov knew that there would soon be a need for an exile different than the one they experienced up until now in the land of Israel. That being the case, better the exile start under the sponsorship of Yosef than in more precarious circumstances.
Following midrash, Rav Alshich formalizes an idea that is actually used in the text itself when Yosef tells his brothers that it is really God who is in charge of how things turn out. Yosef justified his brothers by claiming that their selling him was all orchestrated by fate. Interestingly, this observation boomerangs and justifies his own actions as well. No doubt, Yosef was not faced with an easy choice. Ramban notwithstanding, both Avraham and Yitzchak thought of moving to Egypt in times of famine. That it was not the ideal is obvious, but we can understand Yosef’s belief that it should certainly be considered. What made him able to be so ready to do go for it, however, was the very approach that he employed in soothing his brothers. If he was right, he would be doing what was expected of him. If he was wrong, God would limit the consequences of his mistake. In the best case scenario, it would even end up being advantageous.
The brothers had made a wrong decision about Yosef. While it made sense at the time, they are inconsolable. Like a breath of fresh air, Yosef tells them that this in not the road to take. And before they can even weigh the merits of his words, Yosef makes a seemingly impetuous decision of his own – to have his father come down to Egypt. By doing so, he was showing them that once a difficult decision is made, it is already in the past. And once in the past, we have no choice but to leave it up to God.
Making decisions without looking back is not only a good leadership skill, it is a reflection of living in the shadow of God. While this doesn’t exonerate one from doing one’s best to pursue the correct course of action, it brings about a certain modesty in understanding that the results of our actions are subject to Divine control. While there is an important place for reflecting about past mistakes, that is only with regards to preparing ourselves to do better in the future. There is no place, however, for fretting about the consequences of the past. This is the liberating idea that Yosef is able to teach his brothers once he finally reveals himself to them. And it is with this insight into the nature of faith that the rift between these men of faith is ultimately healed.