Is My Father Still Alive?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Dr. Yoni Frogel

When learning Chumash, and the stories of Sefer Bereishit in particular, we are ‘omniscient readers’.   The Torah gives us all of the relevant information to allow us to reach conclusions about the events in the narrative.  On occasion, our omniscience as readers can paradoxically obscure angles that are critical to a full understanding of the p’shat.  The story of Yoseph in Mitzrayim is a striking example of this phenomena.

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, we read of Yoseph’s reconciliation with his brothers.  After 22 years, culminating with an elaborate charade and Binyamin’s incarceration, the Torah tells us (45:1) that Yoseph can no longer contain himself  “וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק”  as he finally reveals his true identity.  The Torah’s narration of this climactic scene leaves us with a couple of questions:

  1. What prompted Yoseph to finally break at this particular juncture? The brothers had already demonstrated both regret for selling Yoseph and loyalty to Binyamin in last week’s Parsha- and Yoseph was able to maintain his façade. What additional information did Yoseph glean from Yehudah’s speech to elicit such a forceful reaction?
  2. Yoseph’s first words after revealing himself- “אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי”- “I am Yoseph, is my father still alive?” (45:3) beg an explanation. Yoseph has known that his father, Yaakov, is alive since first questioning the brothers upon their arrival in Parshat Miketz.  So what is the meaning of Yoseph’s question here?

In Parshat Vayeshev, after the brothers deceive Yaakov and present him with Yoseph’s tattered and bloodied robe, the Torah describes Yaakov’s grief in heart wrenching detail (37:35):

וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו

All of Yaakov’s sons and daughters rise to console him for Yoseph’s loss, but he is utterly inconsolable.

Although, as readers, we have a clear understanding of Yaakov’s role in this narrative and the overwhelming sorrow that gripped him, to make sense of this passage, we must step away from our ‘omniscience’ and examine the facts from Yoseph’s perspective alone.  At the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, Yoseph is a 17-year-old boy with grandiose dreams and an uneasy relationship with his brothers.  After relating his dreams he is harshly rebuked by Yaakov- “מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ:  הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ, אָרְצָה”- “What is this dream you have dreamt? Am I and your mother and brothers to bow before you?” (37:10).  In the immediate aftermath of this conversation, Yaakov sends Yoseph away to Shechem to check on his brothers- where he is promptly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery.  Given the juxtaposition of these events Yoseph must have wondered how Yaakov felt about his disappearance- or if perhaps Yaakov was involved.

The single new fact that Yehuda told Yoseph was Yaakov’s reaction to Yoseph’s disappearance (44:28):

וַיֵּצֵא הָאֶחָד, מֵאִתִּי, וָאֹמַר, אַךְ טָרֹף טֹרָף; וְלֹא רְאִיתִיו, עַד-הֵנָּה

Yoseph finally has clarity- all these years, Yaakov has been deceived- and has been mourning his lost son.  We can fully understand why this prompted such an emotional response from Yoseph and the full meaning of Yoseph’s declaration- “אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי”.

(based on the writings of R’ Yoel bin Nun)

Yoni Frogel is an anesthesiologist currently living in Bet Shemesh with his wife and 6 children.

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