What Did Joseph Mean to Say?

Vayiggash By :  Walter Herzberg Assistant Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation and Professional Pastoral Skills Posted On Dec 3, 2013 / 5774 | Main Commentary

Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, who has not yet revealed himself to his brothers, threatens to retain his brother Benjamin as a slave (Gen. 44:17). Judah implores Joseph to allow Benjamin to remain free, and proposes that he, Judah, “remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers: For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be a witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Gen. 44:33–34; italics added). The word father is mentioned by Judah no less than 14 times as he beseeches Joseph in the first 17 verses of this week’s parashahamong them: “we have an old father”(Gen 44:20); “the boy cannot leave his father, for should he leave his father, he would die” (Gen. 44: 22); “and now, if I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, since his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul . . . he would die and your servants would bring . . . your servant, our father with sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 44:29–30).

Judah’s words had more than the intended effect, so much so that “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He weeps aloud, and finally, after withholding his identity from his brothers, he shockingly reveals himself to them (after a 22-year separation) with the words, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Joseph’s question, upon careful analysis, is doubly puzzling: (1) why does Joseph ask if his father is still alive, if Judah clearly mentioned that Jacob was indeed alive, having employed the word father 14 times; and (2) even more baffling, perhaps, why does Joseph say, “Is my father still alive,” and not “our father”?

The new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation deals with the first question by taking the liberty of eschewing the literal meaning used in the old JPS translation and most others (including those of R. Alter, E. Fox, and R. Friedman). It dubiously renders the phrase as “Is my father still well?” instead of “Is my father still alive?” Let’s examine the commentary Keli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550–1619, Prague), which preserves the literal translation, and provides the following two explanations addressing each of our questions:

Keli Yakar addressing our first question, why Joseph asked if his father was alive:

Even though they [the brothers] already told him that he [their father] was still alive as was understood from all of Joseph’s words, nevertheless Joseph thought that perhaps they spoke thus, so that he would take pity on the old man and not cause his death since his soul is bound up with his [Benjamin’s] soul. Therefore, he asked once again, “Is my father still alive?”

Richard Friedman nicely captures the essence of Keli Yakar’s comment: “For all he knows, his brothers were lying to him as the Egyptian official, but now he asks them; tell me your brother, Joseph, is he really alive?” (Commentary on the Torah, 148).

Keli Yakar offers an additional interpretation, this time addressing our second question, why Joseph said “my father” and not “our father”:

But they [the brothers] did not understand it thus, and thought [instead] that he [Joseph] didn’t intend to ask if he were alive or not, but [rather] to remind [them] of their sin. Therefore, he said, “Is my father alive” meaning that he’s my father and not your father because you did not take pity on his suffering—as if he were not your father. They were, therefore, terrified and unable to utter a word [in response]. (Gen. 45:5)

In other words, according to Keli Yakar, the brothers interpreted Joseph’s words differently than he intended them. Not surprisingly, Keli Yakar provides us with a psychologically nuanced interpretation. The two comments are actually one: two sides of the same coin. Keli Yakar’s first comment interprets Joseph’s words from Joseph’s own perspective as the speaker: “Joseph thought ”that perhaps his brothers were lying. On the other hand, Keli Yakar’s second comment interprets Joseph’s words from the brothers’ perspective as the listeners: the brothers “thought ”that Joseph was reminding them of their past misdeeds by emphasizing the words my father, when in essence that was not Joseph’s intention at all. The brothers interpreted Joseph’s words based on their own feelings of guilt, and were therefore rendered speechless as the verse concludes. Keli Yakar thereby highlights a most valuable technique of close reading of the Torah and of everyday life: a speaker’s intended meaning and a listener’s understanding of those same words are often very different indeed.[1]

The lesson is perhaps twofold: when speaking, one must weigh one’s words very carefully, considering the sensibilities of the listener, especially when faced with an issue of great import or an emotionally charged situation; on the other hand, the listener must be acutely aware that his or her own concerns may be influencing his or her perception, and must therefore attempt to consider more than one possible understanding of the speaker’s words before responding or not.

Joseph actually learned the lesson himself, according to Keli Yakar. When Joseph realized that his brothers were terrified and unable to respond to him, he spoke again, this time saying, “I’m Joseph your brother” (Gen. 45:4; italics added), not simply “I’m Joseph” as he said when he first revealed himself (Gen. 45:4). To quote Keli Yakar, Joseph thought that “since he said ‘I’m Joseph’ and not ‘I’m Joseph your brother’ . . . they were seized with trembling . . . thinking that Joseph . . . had removed himself from [all feelings of] brotherly love, just as they had done to him [years ago] and he now intended to take revenge . . . Therefore, Joseph spoke again saying ‘I am Joseph your brother.’”


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.

[1] Robert Alter notes that Rashi’s comment to Genesis 22:2 reveals a sensitivity to this very phenomenon: “Although [Abraham] the human object of God’s terrible imperative does not actually speak in the text, this midrashic dialogue [cited by Rashi] demonstrates a fine responsiveness to how the tense stance of the addressee [the listener] is intimated through the words of the addresser [the speaker] in a one-sided dialogue.” (The Five Books of Moses, 108)