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   by Jacob Solomon

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(Joseph said) "Put my cup - the silver cup at the top of (Benjamin's) pack…" Scarcely had (the brothers) left the city, Joseph said to the men that were over his house, "Get up and run after these men! Catch them up and say to them, 'Why have you repaid good with evil? Is this not the cup from which my Master drinks?' " (44:2,4-5).

Why did Joseph plant the silver cup in Benjamin's sack? How was his cause and that of the future Israelite nation advanced by this action?

The commentators discuss this issue. At the base of much of the discussion is the idea that the dreams were Divine revelation to Joseph - an idea put forward by the Ramban (42:9). Thus the dreams were understood by Joseph to be a form of prophecy - Divine communication. The communication was that Joseph would be instrumental in their realization at some point in his life - namely in that Jacob and all his eleven sons were to bow down to him. The dreams also hinted that he, Joseph, must not make himself known to his family, because if they knew that he was their brother as well as the Viceroy of Egypt, the act of bowing down would patently be a farce. For that reason Joseph would not reveal his identity to his brothers when they came down to Egypt on the first occasion - the eleventh star was missing. When the 'eleventh star' - much against his father's wishes, joined the other ten on the second descent to Egypt, Joseph once again kept his identity to himself. The silver cup was put into Benjamin's sack as a pretext for taking Benjamin captive. For the father (the sun) had to be brought down to Egypt as well. The anguish caused by the detaining of Benjamin would ensure that Jacob would descend to Egypt and bow to Joseph. Because of the impassioned speech made by Judah, Joseph was no longer able to hold himself back, and he revealed his true identity. Indeed, Jacob did find himself bowing to Joseph, but only at a much later stage, shortly before his own death (47:31).

In addition, the S'forno (43:16) understands that Joseph was giving the impetus for the brothers to repent, having sold him into slavery twenty-two years previously. The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 2:1) rules that real repentance only takes place when a person is put in the same situation as before, and this time he does not repeat his sin. Thus Joseph's special attention to Benjamin, and his giving him a much larger portion than his other brothers was to promote jealousy amongst the brothers. Those were parallel conditions that caused the brothers to sell Joseph. Would they come to hate Benjamin? Would they make any attempt to rescue him if he were captured - after landing them all in trouble? The heartrending plea of Judah in the presence and on behalf of all the brothers convinced Joseph that they had indeed repented. This was underlined with the concluding words: For how can I go up to my father and the young man is not with me - lest I see the grief that will befall my father (44:34).

Two difficulties present themselves with the above classic explanations. Firstly the dreams were indeed prophecy in that they told Joseph what was going to happen. The dreams, however, did not tell Joseph to become actively involved in ensuring their fulfilment. Moreover, he did not use neutral means to realise the dreams; his method caused prolonged anguish to his old father who had done him no harm.

Secondly, why was Joseph - who was sold into slavery by his brothers, the very person chosen by the Almighty to bring the brothers to repentance? Joseph had suffered considerably over the previous twenty-two years. Did he have to undergo further personal suffering to cause the brothers' repentance? The suffering in this case would be his knowledge of the pain he would have brought to his father and to Benjamin - none of whom had harmed him in any way.

As an approach - consider the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a), which states that anyone who suppresses prophecy deserves to die. Joseph had witnessed the dreams of the gentiles - first Pharaoh's prisoners, and then Pharaoh himself, come true. This would have added more meaning to his dreams, raising them to the level of prophecy. Moreover, on the first visit to Egypt, the brothers themselves had not bowed down to Joseph through any move on his part, but of their own accord. Thus the Almighty had already shown Joseph the direction in which the prophecy was to be fulfilled. There was no way that the prophecy could be directly revealed at that point - for the act of bowing would have had no meaning, as stated earlier. Therefore Joseph's choice was either to suppress the prophecy or bring it about so that it would have meaning. He had no choice, but do the latter… As to the pain it would have brought to his father, his faith in G-d had reached to level of understanding that, as the heavens are above the earth, so My ways are above your ways, and my thoughts are above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

Why was Joseph of all people chosen for this unpleasant task? One suggestion would be that he was not at all blameless. Firstly, he brought negative reports about his brothers' behavior (37:2) to their father. Although Joseph was sincere in his faulty evaluation, he should have reported the facts only and not drawn conclusions (Rashi ad loc., Gur Aryeh). Secondly, his lack of tact in the way he displayed the 'coat of many colors' coupled with the way in which he revealed his dreams to his brothers, caused jealousy.

In such a situation of being not entirely blameless, the Talmud offers the following insight:

'When you build a new house you shall build a fence for your roof, so that you will not cause blood in your house if the fallen one falls from it' (Deut 22:8). The term fallen one implies the person who died deserved to fall for some previous sin, but it should have not been through the house-owner. That he fell from the house-owner's own roof reflects to some degree on that house-owner. From there we get the maxim that G-d brings about good things through the worthy and bad things through the liable (Shabbat 32a).

Joseph, therefore, was the 'liable' in this case. Like the house-owner, the fact that he was chosen to be the pained reformer of the brothers reveals that he was not entirely guiltless himself. This can be taken further: his having to execute Divine justice through the guidance of the dreams was in itself an act of putting his own character in order. As R. Chaim Wilscanski (For the Shabbat Table, p. 64) points out, where previously he showed impetuosity, he now had to practice restraint, and not make himself known to his brothers…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon: From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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