When Joseph meets his brothers again everything is different. He is no longer an arrogant and specially adored child taken up with visions of his own importance much to the annoyance of his older brothers. Now he truly is an important man, second only to the Pharaoh. He is no longer the dreamer – now he is the interpreter of dreams. But one thing seems to remain the same – the relationship between him and his brothers is strained and unhappy.
He recognises his brothers as soon as they come to Egypt to buy food, but he doesn’t reveal himself to them. Instead he behaves in a cruel and unusual way, acting like a stranger to them, and speaking harshly to them, asking, “Where do you come from”. He must know that they are anxious and unsettled in a strange land where they have come to buy food because of famine at home. He must know too that their father has suffered greatly in his absence and will be suffering until the rest of his sons are home. He must have known that imprisoning Shimon would cause terrible pain to his family. And that demanding for Benjamin to come to Egypt – and then keeping him – would potentially destroy his father. He must have known, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to affect him.
Why does Joseph behave in this way? Has the passage of time and the huge respect for him in Egypt not changed him? Has he not matured and let go of some of his justifiable anger towards his brothers? Does he actually believe what he will later tell his brothers, that God has arranged for him to be in Egypt and thus ensure the survival of his family? Is he deliberately humiliating and testing his brothers or is something else going on?
The Berdichever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggested that Joseph was actually acting in defence of his brother’s feelings – knowing that it would be a terrible humiliation for his brothers were they to learn that the man towards whom they were making obeisance and bowing with their faces to the ground was their young brother who had once dreamed that they would do precisely this. Instead of revelling in their defeat and in the reversal of their positions, Joseph chose to keep quiet and appeared to be a stranger so as not to shame them.
While this is an ingenious way of keeping the character of Joseph unblemished and righteous, it is I think a stretch too far for us. But there must be some reason why Joseph keeps his silence, and then goes on to test his siblings, and test them again.
Assuming that Levi Yitzhak was right, and Joseph was acting from compassion rather than vengeance, it may indeed be that he was protecting his brothers from knowing who was standing before them. Before they could have any kind of true and credible reconciliation, the brothers would have to understand what they had done all those years ago to Joseph and to repent – even if they thought they could no longer ask forgiveness of him. Had they known that while they were in the presence of this powerful Egyptian, that they were actually standing in the presence of Joseph, any move towards Joseph, any plea for forgiveness would seem to be insincere and made out of fear or a need for the food he could supply.
Before Joseph could let go of his own anger and pain, he needed to hear that his brothers were repentant of their behaviour towards him and that they understood that their current predicament was some recompense. His strange behaviour towards them does not have to have been vengeance, but part of the process that could lead them all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Once he could see that the brothers truly atoned for their behaviour, then he too was able to take the next step towards conciliation with them. By seeming to be harsh he was in fact allowing for an opportunity for real understanding and credibility.
We can’t know what was really in his mind, why he had not contacted his family when he became powerful in Egypt, why he dealt with his brothers in the way he did; – but we can see that the process of reconciliation is not easy nor does it require us to ignore the real pain we feel when we have been wronged or when we ourselves have wronged others.