This weeks Parsha gives us a deep insight into the human condition. As the famine intensified throughout the land, Yaakov sent his sons down to Mitzrayim to purchase grain. The brothers came to Mitzrayim and eventually found themselves in front of Yoseph, their brother whom they had sold into slavery years earlier. The Pasuk tell us that “Yoseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him” (42:8). Rashi is apparently troubled by the notion that the brothers would not have recognized Yoseph. Even with so many years having gone by, this was their brother who had been an integral part of their lives. They had grown up together and were intensely jealous of him on account of the K’tones Passim. He was the one whose dreams alienated him from all of his older brothers and the one who they threw into the pit and later sold. Rashi addresses this difficulty by saying “this was on account of Yoseph having grown a beard”. (Rashi 42:8). Is it really plausible that the brothers did not recognize Yoseph simply because he had grown a beard?
This question is all the more difficult when one explores the various Mepharshim which provide the details of the brothers encounter with Yoseph. First, Rashi tells us that the brothers entered Mitzrayim through separate gates, not together. This was so as not to garner unnecessary attention and because the brothers wanted to look for Yoseph. The brothers knew Yoseph ended up in Mitzrayim, went looking for him, found him, ended up conversing with him either directly or through an interpreter (Menashe), saw the fulfillment of Yosephs dreams beginning to take shape, heard him inquire as to their “other brother” – yet, they did not recognize Yoseph? How could this be?
To answer this question, we must first take a step back and fully understand what this man standing before the brothers being Yoseph meant. Virtually all the Mepharshim explain that the brothers firmly believed their selling of Yoseph was justified. Whether one understood that he was Moreh B’Malchus, told repeated Loshon Horah on his brothers or paskuned halachic questions improperly, there are a myriad of explanations as to the brothers perception of Yoseph as a renegade. Indeed, after the sale, the only regret which seems to exist is the great suffering they had caused to their father, Yaakov.
With this we can begin to understand how the brothers could have “missed” that this viceroy of Mitzrayim was Yoseph. It is almost certain that some of the brothers suspected that this man resembled Yoseph. With all the other circumstantial hints suggesting that this was Yoseph as well, the murmuring amongst the brothers would only have increased. What is undeniable however, is the fact that the brothers were desperate to believe that this was not Yoseph. If this was, in fact, the brother whom they had sold, then they would be forced to swallow a very bitter pill indeed. They were wrong!! They had misjudged Yoseph, wrongfully condemned him, caused their father to lose his Ruach Hakodesh and endure years of suffering, grieving over his beloved son, - all for naught. They were willing to believe anything rather than face that horrific truth. If this man who resembled Yoseph, sounded like Yoseph, recognized their family lineage etc, wanted to claim that he was someone other than Yoseph, the brothers were more than willing to accept it, no matter how unlikely it seemed.
This point is driven home quite succinctly in next week’s Parsha when Yoseph finally reveals himself. The pasuk says “they were unable to answer him”. (45:3) This was not just out of shock. The pasuk means exactly what it says – it was impossible to answer him – they were unable. There was no reply which could have changed the fact that they were utterly proven to have been so very wrong.
We are told in many places of the great stature of all the brothers. These were, after all, the Shiftei Ka. Yet, their certainty in themselves led them not only to make the terrible mistake of misjudging and selling Yoseph but to stubbornly cling to their belief, even in the face of the most overwhelming evidence that they had been wrong. Let us learn this lesson well. All of us make mistakes; if we are fortunate, we discover our error. We then have a choice – do we use the realization as a time for introspection or do we allow them to force us into a pattern of behavior and justification. It is a wonderful thing to be confident in one’s self. But we all must be willing to learn and grow – even if that means accepting that we have made mistakes in the past.