Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger toward them (42:7)
Jacob grieved relentlessly over the loss of his beloved son whom he assumed to be dead, and he refused to be consoled. “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son” (Genesis 37:35). Joseph knew what kind of agony his father was suffering. Even if he was not able to communicate to him when he was a slave of Potiphar or when he was in prison, he was certainly able to do so once he became viceroy of Egypt. Why did he not inform his father that he was alive and alleviate his profound grief?
Furthermore, Joseph is referred to in Torah writings as “Joseph the tzaddik.” Is it characteristic of a tzaddik to wreak vengeance and torment his brothers the way Joseph did? We would expect that as a tzaddik, he would not harbor a grudge and would forgive them.
The explanation I heard from my late brother, R’ Shlomo, addresses these questions and provides an answer that is both ethically and psychologically sound.
If Joseph had forgiven his brothers for their shameful act, he would have been the magnanimous person who, from the goodness of his heart, forgave his offenders. The brothers would have forever been the groveling penitents who would have to eternally bear the guilt of their behavior. There would be no opportunity for them to make any amends. They would never again be able to face Joseph or their father. Their spirits would have been totally crushed.
Joseph wished to avoid this. He wished to give his brothers an opportunity to redeem themselves and retain their self-esteem.
The Talmud says that true and effective teshuvah is achieved only if the person is placed in the same circumstances of his sin and under the same temptation. Joseph, therefore, designed it so that this would occur. After his absence, Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s sons and the only other child of his beloved Rachel, had now become Jacob’s favorite child. Joseph arranged to have Benjamin brought to him, and he singled out Benjamin for special treatment, giving him five times as much as he gave the brothers. He then engineered it so that Benjamin was suspected of thievery, and said that he was going to keep Benjamin as a slave. He had set the stage for the litmus test. Would the brothers act as they had toward him, saying, “Let Benjamin stay here. This is a good way for us to be free of his favoritism,” and again be indifferent to their father’s feelings as they were when they sold him into slavery? Or had they realized and repented their mistake, and were ready to sacrifice themselves to return Benjamin to their father?
When Judah said that he must return Benjamin to his father and offered to stay as a slave in his place, Joseph saw that the brothers had thereby corrected their behavior and had done proper teshuvah. They had redeemed themselves and would no longer have to bear the guilt and shame for their sin. Joseph was now prepared to reveal his identity to them. Far from being a vengeful torment, Joseph’s actions were in their interest, enabling them to redeem themselves and walk with their heads raised high.
What about Jacob’s agony? Joseph knew his father well. He knew that, painful as the ordeal was, Jacob would gladly accept years of suffering in order to provide his children with the opportunity to gain self-respect. This could not have been achieved in any other way, and Joseph was certain that he was doing what his father wished.
This interpretation shows us the overriding importance of self-esteem. One psychologist writes, “If you have given your child self-esteem, you have given him everything. If you have not given him self-esteem, then whatever else you gave him is of little value.” Self-esteem is the major component of a healthy personality.
We should be aware of this. Sometimes we say or do things to another person that may depress his self-esteem. We should be aware that this is a kind of psycho-logical homicide. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes the importance of upholding every person’s dignity. The saga of Joseph and his brothers teaches us to what extent we must go to preserve a person’s feelings of self-respect and dignity.