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Understanding The Story of Joseph and His Brothers, Part 1

December 20, 2014

Question: Why didn’t Joseph Somehow contact his father and tell him was a slave/prisoner/viceroy in Egypt?

Answer: He couldn’t. As a a penniless slave, he could not afford to pay anybody to take a a scroll and travel all the way back to Canaan and find his father, nor could he find anyone who would help him. Remember, this was before there were organized postal systems, and Ancient Egyptian society treated slaves like property. No one could possibly care to help him escape, and Joseph was too honest with his master’s money to steal from him. Potiphar knew this, which is why he could trust Joseph with all of his possessions and even to look over his books (See the Targumim to Genesis 39:11). When Joseph was in prison, it was even more impossible. Ah, but once Joseph had successfully made his way to viceroy, couldn’t he spare a few servants of his own to alert his father, or couldn’t he take a two week vacation to go and visit?

The answer lies in a few not so well understood facts about Joseph’s predicament, and later that of his whole family.

Jacob died seventeen years after coming to Egypt, a trip that was only supposed to last the five years which were to remain of the seven-year famine. As his death approached, he called Joseph to his side and made him swear that he would bury him back in Canaan. It was not sufficient that Joseph said he would. He had to swear it. Why? Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains Pharaoh’s permission to Joseph to bury Jacob as per his wishes (50:6):

And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father as he adjured you.” As he adjured you, But were it not for the oath, I would not permit you [to go].

That is, Joseph went from being a slave to Potiphar to being a slave to Pharaoh, and now Pharaoh had locked the rest of his in family in the same golden cage. Yes, Joseph was in charge of domestic affairs within Egypt, but he was also kept under lock and key because Pharaoh knew what an asset he had in his most trusted minister. Something similar would happen two thousand years later to Maimonides in the court of the Egyptian Sultan. In his words:

I reside in Egypt (or Fostat); the king resides in Cairo, which lies about two Sabbath-day journeys from the first-named place. My duties to the king are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children or the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers fall sick, and then I have to attend them. As a rule, I go to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens I do not return before the afternoon, when I am almost dying with hunger; but I find the antechambers filled with Jews and Gentiles, with nobles and common people, awaiting my return…”

We see why it is that Joseph dared not to try to contact his family, for fear that they would be forced to join him or that he would punished for attempting to leave the King’s service. It was only when the deprivation of the famine led to his family’ dependence on his sustenance that Joseph dared to suggest that they join in him Egypt, as Pharaoh would not let him constantly send them food for free. On the contrary, we see that Pharaoh considered pressing more of Joseph’s brothers into his service. (See 47:6 and Rashi to 47:2.)

(part 2, part 3)

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From → original, parasha

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