In two weeks, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. He says, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent ne ahead of you.” I was always troubled by that statement, because Joseph torments the brothers (and his father).
In this week’s Parashah, Miketz, Joseph accuses his brothers, whom he recognizes, of being spies. Only by bringing Benjamin to Egypt, the brothers can prove they are spies. Joseph incarcerates the brothers for three days, then he relents: he lets ten brothers fetch Benjamin, and incarcerates Simeon. And, Joseph plays a trick on the brothers: he secretes the money that the brothers brought to buy food in the bags of food that Joseph supplies.
When the brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph plays another trick on the brothers. One of Joseph’s stewards, at Joseph’s direction, secretes a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of food that the brothers bought. After the brothers leave, Joseph directs the steward to pursue them and accuse them of theft. The brothers are angry at the accusation, and they say that the thief will die, and the rest of the brothers will become Joseph’s slaves. Either the steward of Joseph says that the thief will become a slave, and the rest of the brothers will be allowed to leave.
Joseph “discovers” the silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of food. Judah proposes that the brothers are equally guilty and that they all face slavery. Joseph repeats the sentence: the thief will be slave, and the rest of the brothers are free to go.
The conventional interpretation of the story is that Joseph wants to find out whether the brothers (who sold Joseph into slavery) treat Benjamin well. I think the story is a vehicle for Judah’s moral leadership.
Last week, we proposed that the Tamar-Judah episode interrupts the Joseph story because the Tamar-Judah story gives Judah a chance to grow in moral stature. What does the Tamar-Judah story mean if Judah doesn’t have a chance to act on his moral maturation? I think the catalogue of the torments the brothers undergo is setting the stage for Judah’s leadership. King David was from the tribe of Judah, and the Torah writers wanted to make Judah worthy of the progenitor of David.