It came to pass . . . (Genesis 41:1)
The three Torah sections (Vayeishev, Mikeitz and Vayigash) that relate the story of Joseph and his brothers . . . are always read before, during or immediately after the festival of Chanukah.
Since “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), certainly the arrangement of the festivals of the year, which are the “appointed times of G‑d” (Leviticus 23:4), as well as the festivals and fasts instituted by the sages, all have a special connection to the Torah readings in whose weeks they fall, since everything is masterminded by G‑d. Thus the story of Joseph was destined to be repeated with the royal Chashmonai family in the Greek era . . .
Every affliction to befall man has a set time to end, as it is written, “An end He set to darkness, and every limit He investigates” (Job 28:3). This is said regarding Joseph, who had been ten years in prison [when he asked the chief butler to intercede for him], but G‑d investigated and saw that it was necessary for him to be imprisoned for another two years . . .
“In every sorrow there is profit” (Proverbs 14:23). This too is said in regard to Joseph, who suffered in prison and then profited from it [in becoming] ruler over Egypt . . .
Should it not say, “and Pharaoh dreamed”? But this is to teach us that for those two years Pharaoh would see this dream each and every night, but would not remember it, until the time came for Joseph to come out of prison; that morning, he woke up and remembered it.
The wicked see themselves as standing over their gods, as it says, “Pharaoh dreamed, and behold, he stood over the River” (the Nile being the arch-deity of Egypt). But as for the righteous, their G‑d stands over them, as it says (regarding Jacob’s dream), “Behold, G‑d stood over him” (Genesis 28:13).
I.e., the Nile. The verse refers to it as ha-ye’or (lit., “the canal”), because the whole country was full of artificially constructed canals which the Nile’s flow filled with water, since rain does not regularly fall in Egypt.
Pharaoh saw the cows and sheaves coming out of the River, for sustenance comes to Egypt only from the Nile, and famine too comes only from the Nile.
There were indeed interpreters of the dreams, but “none that could interpret them to Pharaoh”—their interpretations were unacceptable to him. They said: the seven good cows mean that you will beget seven daughters; the seven bad-looking cows, that you will bury seven daughters; the seven full ears of grain, that you will conquer seven provinces; the seven thin ears, that seven provinces will revolt against you.
Accursed are the wicked, for they never do a kindness thoroughly. In mentioning Joseph, the chief butler speaks of him in disparaging language: “a lad”—unwise, and unfitted for a high position; “a Hebrew,” who does not even know our language; “a slave,” and it is written in the bylaws of Egypt that a slave may neither become a ruler nor dress in princely robes.
Said Rabbi Banaah: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. Once I dreamt a dream and I went around to all of them, and they all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled, thus confirming that which is said, “All dreams follow the mouth.”
Said Rabbi Elazar: From where do we know that all dreams follow the mouth? Because it says, “It came to pass that as he interpreted to us, so it was.” Rava said: This is only if the interpretation corresponds to the content of the dream, for it says, “To each man according to his dream he interpreted.”
(Talmud, Berachot 55b)
A woman came to Rabbi Eliezer and said to him: “I saw in a dream that the loft of the upper story of my house was split open.” “You will conceive a son,” he told her. She went away, and this happened. Again she dreamed the same, and came and told it to Rabbi Eliezer, who gave her the same interpretation, and this happened. She dreamed this a third time, and came to him, but did not find him, so she told her dream to his disciples. “You will bury your husband,” they told her, and this happened. Rabbi Eliezer, hearing a cry of wailing, asked what was amiss, whereupon they related to him what had occurred. “You have killed the man,” he upbraided them. “Is it not written, ‘It came to pass that as he interpreted to us, so it was’”?
Rabbi Yochanan said: All dreams are dependent on the interpretation given to them, except for a dream about wine. Sometimes a dream of drinking wine bodes well, and sometimes it spells misfortune. When a scholar drinks, it is a good sign; when an ignoramus drinks, it spells misfortune.
In contrast, Joseph saw in his dream (recounted in the beginning of the previous Parshah) that “we were binding sheaves in the field . . .”
Both Pharaoh and Joseph behold the future in their dreams, but with a significant difference. To Pharaoh life is a river, with himself standing on the riverbank—outside of its flow, a passive bystander to what transpires. To Joseph, life is a field within which he toils, laboring at “binding sheaves”—gathering its diverse stalks and binding them into an integral whole.
Many are seduced by the enticements of Pharaonic life. “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free,” the children of Israel grumbled (Numbers 11:5) when G‑d had stripped them of the shackles and security of slavery. Life is a free lunch in Pharaoh’s Egypt; there are no choices in your life, but neither is there the anxiety and responsibility they entail. You simply stand on the riverbank and watch the cows and years follow and consume one another.
Pharaoh’s vision may be every vegetable’s utopia, but there is little satisfaction and no fulfillment in his free fish. It is only in the toilsome labor in the field of life that the most important freedom of all is to be found: the freedom to achieve and create.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
This is the interpretation of the fact that, in the dream, the lean cows (and ears) swallowed up the fat ones.
An “understanding” person (navon) is one who can deduce one thing from another; a “wise” one (chacham) is one who possesses wisdom. A navon who is not a chacham is like a mighty warrior who is unarmed; a chacham who is not a navon is like a weakling with armaments; a navon and chacham is a strong and well-armed warrior.
What is the meaning of the verse (Genesis 49:22), said in regard to Joseph, “The daughters strode upon the ramparts”? As Joseph rode in the chariot across the land of Egypt, the daughters of Egypt were walking atop the walls and throwing golden rings to him, hoping that he would look at their beauty . . .
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer)
Most commentaries identify Poti-Phera with Potiphar, Joseph’s former master.
According to a Midrashic account cited by a number of the commentaries, Asenath was the daughter of Dinah from Shechem. Banished from Jacob’s house, Asenath wandered to Egypt and was raised by Potiphar and his wife. When the daughters of Egypt threw their jewelry at Joseph (see above), Asenath threw a golden amulet which identified her as a granddaughter of Jacob, and Joseph took her as his wife.
Each part of the land preserves its own produce; one mixes from the local dust into the grain, and this keeps it from spoiling.
Also the produce of man requires some “local dust” as a preservative, lest it rot.
The greater a person’s achievements, the more susceptible they are to corruption. A fruitful yield in life—material or spiritual—may breed an arrogance that corrodes all that is good and G‑dly in it. The solution is a dose of dust. One who saturates his successes with humility and self-effacement guarantees their preservation as positive and constructive forces in his own life and the lives of his fellows.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
In galut (exile), a person is deprived of his “home”—of the environment that preserves his faith, nourishes his growth and spurs his achievements. But precisely because it deprives him of the support of his natural environment, the state of galut compels the person to turn to the inner reaches of his soul and extract from there reserves of commitment and determination never tapped in more tranquil times.
This is one positive function of galut. In addition, exile broadens a person’s horizons, bringing him in contact with things and circumstances he never would have encountered at home. Many of these are negative things and circumstances, contrary to the values of his homeland and tradition; but everything in G‑d’s world possesses a positive potential. When a person learns to resist and reject the negative aspects of these alien things, he can then redeem the “sparks of holiness” they harbor at their core, by utilizing their essence toward good and G‑dly ends.
Joseph in Egypt experienced these two stages in the positive exploitation of galut. In naming his first son Manasseh (“forgetting”), Joseph referred to his struggles in an environment intent on eradicating all memory of home and roots, and how his battle against forgetting and disconnection uncovered his deepest potentials. His second son, Ephraim, so named “because G‑d has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction,” represents the second dividend of galut—the manner in which the “land of affliction” itself is exploited as a source of growth and productivity.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
When the famine in Egypt became severe, the Egyptians went to Joseph, crying, “Give us bread.” “Woe to me that I must feed the uncircumcised,” he exclaimed. “Go and circumcise yourselves,” he said to them.
So they went to Pharaoh and cried out before him. “Go to Joseph,” he ordered them. “We have gone to him,” they answered, “and he commands us to circumcise ourselves. Did we not tell you originally that he is a Hebrew, and it is not fitting for a Hebrew to wield authority over us?”
“Fools,” said Pharaoh, “didn’t a herald continually proclaim before him during the seven years of plenty, ‘A famine is coming, a famine is coming!’ Why then did you not keep in reserve the produce of a year or two?”
Bursting into tears, they replied, “Even the grain which we have left at home has rotted.” “Is there no flour left from yesterday or the day before?” he asked. “Even the bread in our baskets has gone moldy,” they told him.
“Fools,” he answered. “If the grain rots at his decree, what if he decrees against us and we die! Go to him, and even if he tells you to cut off something of your flesh, obey him and do all that he commands you.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
I.e., why should you give the impression to the children of Ishmael and the children of Esau that you are sated? For at that time they still had food.
Our rabbis have taught: If one journeys from a place where they are not fasting to a place where they are fasting, he should fast with them. . . . If he forgot and ate and drank, he should not make it public, nor may he indulge in delicacies, as it is written: “Jacob said to his sons: ‘Why should you display yourselves?’”
(Talmud, Taanit 10b)
Why are they called “Joseph’s brothers” and not “Jacob’s sons”? In the beginning they did not treat him with brotherly love, but sold him; subsequently, however, they regretted it. Every day they would say, “Let us go and inquire about him, and restore him to his father.” So when Jacob told them to go down to Egypt, they all resolved to show him brotherly love [and try to find him].
Jacob feared that Rachel’s children were destined to perish on the road. He said to himself: “Their mother died on the road; Joseph I sent on the way, and he never returned; perhaps Benjamin would meet the same fate?”
Joseph knew that his brothers were coming to Egypt. What did he do? He placed guards at the ten gates of the city and, ordered them to record the names of all who entered. In the evening they brought him their lists. One read, “Reuben the son of Jacob”; another, “Simeon the son of Jacob,” and so on. He ordered that all the storehouses be shut down except for one, and he gave their names to the official in charge of that storehouse, instructing him: “When these men whose names are written here come, bring them to me.”
Several days passed, but they did not come. He sent his men to search for them, and they found them in the street of harlots. What were they doing there? They thought: “Maybe because Joseph was of handsome appearance, he was placed in a [harlot’s] tent.” They were arrested and brought to Joseph.
Joseph took his cup, struck it, and exclaimed: “You are spies.”
“We are upright men,” they replied.
“So why did you not all enter through one gate?”
“Our father told us to do so.”
“And what business had you in the street of harlots?”
“We have lost something, and were searching for it.”
“I see in my cup that two of you destroyed a great city, and that you sold your brother to Arabs,” he told them.
They were immediately seized with trembling, and exclaimed: “We are twelve.”
“Where then are the other two?”
“One is dead, and the other is with our father.”
“Then go and bring him to me.”
He took Simeon and bound him before their eyes, because it was he who had pushed him into the pit, and because he wanted to separate him from Levi, lest they devise a plot against him.
Said Simeon to his brothers: “So you did to Joseph, and so you wish to do to me.”
“What can we do?” they replied. “Are the members of our household to die of famine?”
“Do as you wish,” he told them. “Now let’s see who will put me into prison.”
Joseph then sent to Pharaoh a request, “Send me seventy of your mighty men, for I have found robbers and want to put them in chains.” When he sent them, Joseph’s brothers looked to see what he would do. “Throw this man into prison,” Joseph ordered them. But as they approached him, Simeon cried out aloud at them; on hearing his voice they fell on their faces, and their teeth were broken . . .
Now Manasseh was sitting before his father, and his father said to him: “You arise.” Immediately Manasseh arose, gave him one blow, threw him into prison, and put him in fetters. Said Simeon: “This is a blow from our family.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Tanchuma)
Many of the commentaries raise the question: why did Joseph not notify his father, in all these years, that he was alive? Perhaps there was no way he could have done this in the thirteen years that he was a slave and a prisoner, but certainly it was within his power, as viceroy of Egypt (a position he assumed nine years before his reunion with his father), to send a message to Canaan?
Several commentaries cite Midrash Tanchuma, which describes an “oath and curse” (cherem) which the nine brothers who sold Joseph pronounced to forbid anyone to reveal their deed to their father. Needing a tenth participant to effect the cherem (Reuben was not present at the selling of Joseph), they made G‑d a partner to their oath. And G‑d collaborated with them, for the sale of Joseph was integral to His “awesome plot” to bring the children of Israel to Egypt. (Rashi explains that this was why Isaac, who as a prophet knew what happened, did not reveal the truth to Jacob, reasoning, “How can I reveal it, if G‑d does not wish to reveal it to him?”). Since disbanding a cherem requires the consent of the parties who imposed it, Joseph had to first reveal himself to his brothers and be reconciled with them.
The commentary Daat Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosafot also gives the following explanation: Joseph was afraid that if he informed his father of what happened to him, his brothers would disperse and scatter to the north and to the south out of shame before their father and fear of Joseph’s vengeance; that would have spelled the end of the Jewish nation. So Joseph first had to reconcile himself with them, and convince them and his father that it was all ordained from Above.
Joseph had had two dreams—one in which his eleven brothers’ sheaves bowed to his; and a second dream in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed to him. He knew that they were both ordained to be fulfilled exactly as foretold, and in the order in which the dreams appeared to him.
This explains why Joseph acted as he did. For one might wonder: since Joseph was already established in Egypt for many years, and was a high official and a minister there, why did he not send a single letter to his father to notify him and comfort him? Hebron is just a six-day journey from Egypt! Certainly his father would have ransomed him for any sum of money. But the dreams dictated that they would bow to him—something which Joseph understood would take place in Egypt, the place where he was gaining sovereignty and power. The dreams also dictated that at first only his brothers would bow to him, and that only on a second occasion would his entire family, including his father and (adoptive mother) Bilhah, do so. Had Joseph notified his father, Jacob would certainly have immediately come to him—contrary to how things were ordained in his dreams.
So Joseph waited for his brothers to come to Egypt to purchase food. But when they came and bowed to him, there were only ten of them, so he knew that the first dream had not yet been fulfilled. He therefore had to devise a ploy that would compel them to bring Benjamin—without revealing his identity. Only after Benjamin had come and bowed together with his other brothers could Joseph notify his father and cause the second dream to be fulfilled as well.
Also the other ploy he devised—planting the goblet in Benjamin’s sack—was not to cause them suffering, but to be certain that his brothers did not harbor any jealousy toward Benjamin because of their father’s preference of him, as they had towards himself. He therefore had to test their love and devotion towards Benjamin before he could allow him to go with them.
This was the moment, foretold by Joseph’s dreams, which his brothers had resisted and fought against so bitterly. Had they been aware that the person to whom they were bowing was Joseph, they would have experienced a profound sense of defeat. This is why Joseph did not immediately reveal himself—he could not bring himself to subject them to such humiliation.
(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev)
Because when he left them they were already bearded, while he had not yet grown a beard.
The brothers could not comprehend Joseph’s manner of serving G‑d. Like their fathers before them, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph’s brothers were shepherds—a vocation which takes a person far from the tumult and vanities of society to a life of seclusion and communion with nature. As such, they could turn their backs on the mundane affairs of man, contemplate the majesty of the Creator, and serve Him with a clear mind and a tranquil heart.
They could not understand how Joseph could be a man of the world, a “fortuitous achiever” in commerce and politics, and at the same time remain completely bound to G‑d in his every moment and every endeavor.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
There is a Midrash that says that the brothers plotted to kill Joseph in order to prevent the birth of Jeroboam ben Nebat—one of the most sinful and destructive personalities in Jewish history (cf. I Kings chs. 11–14)—who was a descendant of Joseph.
So when Joseph accused them of being spies—an accusation of which they were innocent, but which portended the sin of the spies, of which their descendants would be guilty in the time of Moses—they realized their error . . .
(This also explains why Jacob would not accept Reuben as a guarantor for Benjamin’s safety, only the guarantorship of Judah. If the brothers were being made to pay for the sin of the spies, the only one who could save them was Judah, since Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, did not join in the spies’ conspiracy.)
A spark of prophecy was kindled in them, and they said to him, unwittingly: You and we are the sons of the same man.
Corresponding to the three days in which they had plotted and executed the destruction of Shechem.
They had convinced the inhabitants of Shechem to circumcise themselves in order to kill them. Joseph had done the very opposite: he compelled the Egyptians to circumcise themselves, and then proceeded to sustain them and save their lives.
Only before their eyes did he bind him; but as soon as they left, he brought him out, gave him to eat and drink, and bathed and anointed him.
A decree of ostracism (niddui), even if self-imposed, and even if made on a condition that is not fulfilled, requires absolution. From where is this derived? From Judah. For it is written, “Judah said to Israel his father: ‘. . . If I do not bring him to you, and set him before you, then I shall be guilty towards you for all eternity.’” Because of these words, all through the forty years that Israel remained in the wilderness, Judah’s bones were jolted about in their coffin, until Moses arose and pleaded for mercy on his behalf. (This, despite the fact that Judah did bring back Benjamin alive and well.)
(Talmud, Makkot 11b)
“Slaughter an animal”—uncover for them the neck (to show them that it has been properly slaughtered); “and make it ready”—remove the sciatic nerve in their presence.
(Talmud, Chullin 91a)
This seems to be other than the truth, since Joseph had in fact returned the money to them?
The Midrash says that the reason why the famine was ordained, causing all the wealth of the world to flow to Egypt, was to bring about the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:14), “And afterwards they [the children of Israel] will go out [from Egypt] with great wealth.”
Hence Joseph ordered the money returned to them: why take money from them, if the money is being collected for them?
This is the true meaning of the statement “Your money has come to me”-the money coming to me from all over the world is, in truth, your money.
(Rabbi Menachem of Amshinov)
Rabbi Chiya the Elder (who had moved from Babylonia to the Holy Land) met a Babylonian and asked him, “How is my father?” Replied he, “Your mother has inquired about you.” (Thus he gently intimated that Rabbi Chiya’s father was dead.)
By the same token, when Joseph asked, “Is your father well?” he was inquiring after Jacob; “the old man of whom you spoke” was a reference to Isaac. To which they replied: “Your servant our father is well; he is still alive.” (Isaac had died ten years earlier, a year before Joseph was released from prison.)
He wept also for Isaac, to whom he did not pay his final kindness.
Because the Hebrews eat the animal (the sheep) which is worshipped by the Egyptians.
When they came to recline [at the meal], he took the cup, struck it and declared: “Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun are the sons of one mother. Where are they? Bring them and let them sit together. Dan and Naftali are the sons of one mother; bring them and let them sit together. Gad and Asher are the sons of one mother; bring them and let them sit together.” Thus Benjamin was left. Said he: “He is motherless and I am motherless, so he and I will sit together.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
From the day that Joseph departed from his brothers he did not taste wine, and they too did not taste wine, until this occasion.
(Talmud, Shabbat 139a)
Why did the brothers, who had no way of knowing that they were united with their lost brother, drink?
But when they saw that they had no feelings of envy toward Benjamin, who had received preferential treatment from Joseph, they understood that they had overcome the root cause of Joseph’s sale and had fully repented their sin.
Joseph wished to test his brother’s love for Benjamin his brother, to see if they would be ready to sacrifice themselves for his sake.
A person should always leave the city by ki tov (“because it is good”-a reference to the light of day) and enter it by ki tov, as it is written: “As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away.”
(Talmud, Taanit 10b)
There was once a certain innkeeper in the south who used to arise in the night, put on his clothes and say to his guests, “Get up and go out, for a caravan is passing.” They would go out, whereupon a robber band would fall upon and kill them, and then enter the inn and share the spoils with him.
On one occasion Rabbi Meir came there and was received as a guest. [The host] arose, dressed, and said to him, “Get up and go out, as a caravan is passing.” “I have a brother for whom I must remain here and wait,” he answered. “Where is he?” he asked. “In the synagogue.” “Tell me his name, and I will go and call him,” he urged. “His name is Ki Tov,” he replied. The innkeeper went and spent the whole of the night calling out “Ki Tov!” at the door of the synagogue, but no one responded. In the morning Rabbi Meir got up, put his baggage on his donkey, and was about to go, when the innkeeper asked him, “Where is your brother?” “Here it is,” he told him, “for it is written (Genesis 1:4), ‘G‑d saw the light ki tov (“that it was good”).’”
This is one of the ten instances of kal vachomer (a fortiori) arguments to be found in the Torah.
When it was thus found, they exclaimed to him: “What! You are a thief and the son of a thief!” (referring to Rachel, who stole Laban’s idols). To which he retorted: “Have we Joseph here? Have we a he-goat here (into whose blood you dipped Joseph’s coat in order to pretend that he was killed)? Have we here brothers who sold their brother!?”
We know that we have not sinned in this matter, but this has been brought about by G‑d; our Creditor has found from where to exact His debt.