As always for R. Arama, after making the broad points about the righteous always feeling like immigrants in the world, as we saw last time, he turns to the parsha.
Yosef Sets Up and Frames the Interaction
Yosef was the one doling out grain to those who came to Egypt to buy, usually not how the second highest ruler of all Egypt acts. R. Arama says Yosef was on the lookout for his brothers, hoping he would encounter them.
When he did, the verse tells us Yosef recognized them. R. Arama tweaks it, says Yosef mostly recognized them, wasn’t quite sure; it had been 20 years, after all. He did not realize their bowing to him already fulfilled the first dream, and started a conversation to check who they were. He spoke excessively harshly to distract them, ensuring they would not recognize him.
He wanted to know how his father and full brother were, but needed to withhold his own identity until the second dream came true as well. [R. Arama takes for granted the value of working to bring a dream to fruition, where more contemporary scholars of Tanach, such as R. Yoel Bin-Nun, question the idea, a topic not relevant to our current study.]
The brothers eventually say the youngest is with his father, a phrase R. Arama thinks was not as clear as Yosef wanted, because it could have meant they had both passed away (to prove the word “with” can include the deceased, he reminds us that Shmuel tells Shaul he would be “with” him the next day, on the night before Shaul dies in battle), or that only Binyamin was alive, living near his father’s grave.
Yosef had to engineer the conversation and events to give him the knowledge he sought. Were the brothers to protect Binyamin when he was in trouble, Yosef could know they had changed.
Apologizing for Yosef
Twice in the next series of comments, R. Arama takes a position we might have questioned. He has just said Yosef was setting up events to get Binyamin to Egypt as a test for the other brothers. He excuses the distress this would cause Yaakov by saying Yosef never required all the other brothers to return to Egypt; they could have left some behind to care for Yaakov. Yosef’s asking after his father’s welfare when the brothers do come back proves his concern for his father, to R. Arama’s satisfaction.
[But not mine, I mean to say. I can accept that Yosef thought these issues were important enough to justify the cost of his father’s distress. I am less convinced that leaving some of the brothers behind while Binyamin went to Egypt would ease Yaakov’s distress to a noticeable extent.]
As Yosef lays out the plan, he says if you bring Binyamin back, I’ll know you’re telling the truth, but if not, by Par’oh’s life, you are spies. R. Arama surprises me by insisting Yosef would never have sworn falsely using the name of his king as the guarantor of its truth (the oath “by the king’s life” means “the king should die if I’m not telling the truth). I could have imagined Yosef wouldn’t really care, and wonder whether R. Arama was making a point for his time, to reassure anyone within earshot of the Jews’ allegiance to their non-Jewish monarchs and commitment to truth-telling.
Yosef seems to have taken a false oath, by Par’oh’s life that they are spies. His first suggestion notes the conditional nature of the oath, his having declared them spies if they failed to bring Binyamin. Confident they would, he was fine. [Another questionable claim: If I am sure a side of my oath will never come true, is it just fine to make false assertions? R. Arama seems to think yes.]
A closer look at the words of the oath also help. Yosef says chei Par’oh, rather than chai Par’oh. The latter would mean an oath by Par’oh’s life, where the way Yosef said it refers to an object Par’oh owns (chai Par’oh means by the life of Par’oh, chei Par’oh means the life belonging to Par’oh). Yosef knew it would sound like an oath, but wasn’t in fact making an oath.
[Either way, of course, Yosef was saying something he knew would be heard other than how he meant it. Considering R. Arama started down this road because he could not believe Yosef would swear a false oath by Par’oh’s life, his solutions seem to me to provide less moral clarity than I’d have hoped. It is, to me, a very good example of how our questions about the conduct of figures in Tanach too often depend on our own judgments of right and wrong, where what we ought to want to know is the Torah’s judgment.
Here, he thought Yosef wasn’t at fault for Yaakov’s continuing distress because the brothers could have left someone with Yaakov, and that the oath wasn’t a problem because it wouldn’t ever have to come true and wasn’t an oath by Par’oh’s life. We who might see it differently would need some other way of reading the Torah.]
The Lessons of an Outsider
Yosef puts them in prison for three days, then offers an out, to leave Shimon, go back, bring Binyamin, and prove their innocence. R. Arama notes the political wisdom in Yosef’s action, giving the brothers a palatable way forward to a conclusion that would meet all their needs—he, Yosef, would see Binyamin, they would get the food they needed for their homes, at the tolerable cost of Shimon staying behind.
[In a different life, I read Graham Allison’s celebrated “Essence of Decision,” about the Cuban Missile Crisis, where one of his key points was Kennedy’s always giving the Russians ways out.]
Perhaps unintendedly, Yosef also brought the brothers to realize how wrong they had been. This stranger’s compassion on them and their physically absent relatives (so he wasn’t led to pity by the visual cue of their suffering), without Yaakov or Binyamin making any request, contrasted with their hard-heartedness to their pleading brother, who had been right there before them. They admitted their guilt, acknowledged they deserved what was coming to them.
[The brothers do say all this in reaction to Yosef, despite little in what he had said connecting to the original incident. He is offering a reason for them to have come up with their idea now, after hearing Yosef speak. He interestingly suggests it was only at this moment that they were able to see their guilt. While others would say they had known they did wrong all along and brought it up here as they faced a new crisis, R. Arama is saying it was only now that they fully comprehended how far wrong they had gone, the lesson in compassion for others had just been taught. For us, it might be a lesson in denial and how long it can last, for our very greatest.]
As a small side point, he says Yosef put their money back in their sacks to encourage them, to give them a sense that some parts of their life were going well. If so, it backfired, because they took it as yet another threat.
Yehuda’s Defense of Binyamin
As with many parshiyot, R. Arama goes through the story step by step, many of his comments side points. I am therefore skipping to the next large point he makes, when Yehuda steps forward to argue on behalf of releasing Binyamin. R. Arama knows three ways to plead a case: offer proofs of innocence, reasons to treat the defendant more leniently than the letter of the law, or show others were guilty.
Yehuda has none of those available. He cannot demonstrate innocence because he doesn’t know what happened (Yehuda implies Yosef does know, R. Arama says), Yosef has no reason to be more lenient than the law allows, and the evidence is too clear to say it was anyone else.
Because R. Arama thinks judges can only be lenient in ways that will not adversely affect others [a reminder that sometimes what seems generous has other consequences for people we have not considered], Yosef’s telling them he did not intend to take all the law would allow—death to Binyamin and slavery for the brothers—opened the door to further claims.
First, punishments should slide on the scale of the defendant, lighter sentences for the very young or old. Makkot 22a has a similar idea, where the Gemara says the person administering lashes for a convicted defendant would adjust the strength he used to fit the person being lashed. Should the criminal lose control of his/her bowels during the process, the embarrassment would substitute for the pain of the lashes, and the punishment would stop there.
Judges also adjust sentences when others will be implicated (in this case, Yaakov). To R. Arama, that’s why David left Yoav alive after the murders David would eventually have Shlomo avenge; at the time, Yoav was too important to the Jewish nation (perhaps Shimi b. Gera as well, whom Chazal assume to have been a premier Torah scholar). In an earlier incident, Shaul had held his son liable for death for violating an oath he, the king, had made. As he had that day been the agent of a military victory, a benefit to the whole nation, his punishment had to be adjusted.
Third, some crimes do not come with clear predetermined punishments. The crime of taking the cup was a matter of insult to Yosef, leaving him with leeway about the punishment.
Three reasons, in other words, Yosef could give Binyamin less than he “deserved”: he had reason to know Binyamin mattered greatly to Yaakov, such as by the brothers’ original resistance, their willingness to go to jail rather than commit to bring him. When they did agree, Yosef had implicitly promised to let Binyamin go because of his special relationship with his father, had claimed he only wanted to see him to verify their story. Once Yosef said he wanted Binyamin to be a slave, instead of killing him for his crime, he showed this was a financial offense rather than a capital one, susceptible to substitution and adjustment, such as letting Yehuda serve the sentence.
Yehuda’s full-throated and well-reasoned plea, with his readiness for self-sacrifice, convinces Yosef, and he reveals himself to his brothers.
Par’oh Likes Yosef
We’re almost out of space, so I will skip to note that only R. Arama thinks the verse wants us to see how valued Yosef was in Par’oh’s court, based on the pleasure they take in the news Yosef had found his family. They were thrilled he would now be known he had a large and important family (until now, he had done well, they liked him, but now they could all be sure he also deserved his high position, based on his family).
To emphasize his good feelings toward Yosef, Par’oh empowers him to bring and support his family, furnishing all they need. Yosef, in turn, does some of that already for his brothers, giving them new clothing to make a good impression on Yaakov, a first sense the family fortunes had turned for the better.
Usually, R. Arama’s readings of the parsha show how his original themes play out in the text. In this case, it was less so—the comments we saw last time, about not being too invested in the wealth of this world, a sort of underlying current of the later discussion—which was more about Yosef and Yehuda finding their way to end the long estrangement of the family.
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.