The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
After Joseph accused his brothers of being spies, they repeated they are children of a single father. Joseph says their response corroborates his accusation. What in their response that led him to that conclusion? What was the significance of the espionage accusation?
Joseph intended to verify if his brothers truly repented for how they treated him and for selling him into slavery. The repentant person must demonstrate that he has repudiated his past actions. The brothers had to demonstrate a readiness to lay down their lives to protect one of their own.
Judah demonstrated this level of repentance. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for Benjamin. This was the same Judah who epitomized the art of compromise, whose actions were scoffed at by Chazal who said, “Anyone who blesses Judah for his actions regarding the sale of Joseph into slavery instead of killing him is an instigator.” This was the same Judah, demoted from leadership after Joseph’s sale, who now resumed his leadership role by offering to substitute for Benjamin. Rav Mendel mi’Kotzk said on the verse “Gur aryeh Yehuda” that even when Judah falls, he is still a lion. For if not, “Mi yekimenu,” who would be capable of lifting him up. Even after he has fallen he still has the ability to pick himself up and regroup.
Joseph sought to verify their repentance, but why accuse them of being spies? Torah tells us the brothers intermingled among the multitudes that descended to Egypt to purchase food. They thought they came simply to purchase food, just like all the other strangers. Joseph understood their reason for coming was very different: to fulfill the Brit Bayn Habetarim. The price for becoming a great nation was enduring the 400-year exile in Egypt. An Aramean (Laban) attempted to eliminate my forefather and he descended to Egypt where he became a great nation. They never would have become a great nation had they remained in Canaan.
The Patriarchs lived most of their lives in Canaan, but eventually their descendants had to travel to Egypt. Payment on the covenant began that fateful day Jacob sent Joseph from the valley of Hebron to search for his brothers. Rashi notes that Hebron is in a mountainous region, why refer to it as a valley? Because Joseph emerged from the depths of the contract forged with the great patriarch buried in Hebron. We don’t know why the price for becoming a great nation was to descend to Egypt and suffer there so long, we only know it was G-d’s divine will. It was His will they attain Great Nation status in Egypt. Chazal say Joseph’s encounter with the mysterious man, the angel Gabriel, was to ensure Joseph located his brothers and facilitate the rendezvous that initiated fulfillment of Abraham’s covenant with G-d.
The exile unfolded in three stages: 1) the sale of Joseph; 2) the brothers travel to purchase food; 3) arrival of the entire house of Israel. Joseph understood they were in Egypt for a greater reason than simply to purchase food. They descended to Egypt to begin the next phase of their exile, to fulfill the prerequisites to become a great nation. Torah stresses that Joseph recognized his brothers. When they told him they came to purchase food, he was incredulous. Did they really believe that was their mission? Joseph emphasized they were mistaken. He alone recognized their arrival was a prerequisite for becoming a great nation. For whatever reason, exile and back-breaking work in Egypt was required.
Joseph recalled the dreams he “dreamed for them.” Joseph realized his dreams were not about him personally; they were about the destiny of the entire Jewish Community. Joseph called them spies to emphasize their true mission: prepare for exile. Had their mission been to purchase food, there would have been no need for all of them to come. They could have sent their servants instead. Joseph was incredulous that Jacob’s children thought they were on a limited, short-term mission to purchase provisions. Rather, Joseph informed them they were scouts. A short-term visit does not require scouts. Joseph informed them to prepare for a long-term stay in Egypt for which scouts were appropriate. Whether they realized it or not they needed to act as scouts. Similarly Moses sent spies to scout the land prior to commencing a long-term relationship with it.
Many commandments prohibit emulating the abominable practices of the Egyptians. Yet Divine Providence decreed the Jewish people could become a great nation only in Egypt. Perhaps the Jews were brought to Egypt to observe the most technologically advanced yet morally bankrupt civilization of the era, capable of enslaving an entire people. With this background, the Jew who understands the suffering of a stranger is commanded to love the convert and treat others fairly.
Joseph was sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s executioner, among the most morally corrupt Egyptians. There he could observe the aberrant Egyptian behavior, steel himself to reject it and blaze a path for the Jewish Community in resisting assimilation and adhering to a moral code scorned by the advanced Egyptian society. Divine Providence placed Joseph in an environment that he could appreciate the need for kindness towards others. Joseph tells his brothers that like him, they are spies who have come to observe the moral weaknesses of the land so they may emerge morally unscathed from the impending exile. The brothers answered they were in Egypt temporarily to purchase food. They did not understand Joseph’s hint that their mission was to scout in preparation for an extended stay.
Joseph, like the mysterious man who directed him that fateful day, was the lead scout whose mission was to ensure they fulfill their destiny of Exile in Egypt. The brothers responded they were 12 brothers, one missing and the other home with their father. Joseph replies this confirms his suspicion that they are all scouts, especially the missing brother: Joseph himself!