“Is My Father [Really] Alive?”: More than a Rhetorical Question
Are there any more moving words in the entire Torah than the question Joseph asks immediately upon revealing his identity to his brothers: “Is my father [really] alive?” (Genesis 45:3). After many years of denying his identity, hiding his identity, and trying to forget his past, he cannot contain himself any longer. He clears the room of everyone except his brothers. “He gave voice to a loud wail, and the Egyptians heard—Pharaoh’s palace heard!” (45:2).
At first glance, it might seem that Joseph asks a rhetorical question. Hadn’t his brothers spoken of his father all along? But upon further reflection it is more than a rhetorical question. First of all, it is possible that Jacob had died since the brothers first encountered Joseph in Egypt, in spite of their references to him. After all, Joseph might have reasoned, I have fooled them by hiding my identity; they think that I am dead. Perhaps they have figured out who I am and they are hiding from me the fact that our father has died.
In fact, the reason Joseph has waited so long to reveal his identity to his brothers might be because he is not sure how his relationship with his brothers will be affected by his father’s presence. Ramban expresses surprise that Joseph never attempts to contact his father and his family. But the text clearly indicates that Joseph wants to forget his past. Recall that he named his firstborn Manasseh, “For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house” (41:51).
Although Joseph never explicitly condemns his father, it is hard to imagine that he does not have resentment toward him for allowing his brothers to treat him as they did. After all, it was his father who sent him to see how his brothers were doing as they pastured the flocks at Shechem (37:13–14). And this is despite the fact that Jacob knew Joseph was inclined to bring him bad reports about his brothers (37:2).
The more Joseph had the opportunity to reflect on the chain of events that led him to be sold and taken down to Egypt, the more he must have grown to resent the role that his father played in the story. The one person who should have protected him from his brothers’ resentment ended up sending him to them, far away from home, where they were able to take out their frustrations on him.
This resentment explains why Joseph did not attempt to contact his father when he had the opportunity to do so after rising to power in Egypt. When his brothers suddenly appear on the scene, he is faced with the need to come to terms with his past. He puts this off by developing an elaborate test to determine if his brothers will abandon Benjamin, as they abandoned him, or if they have changed.
But while the focus of the text is on the brothers and how they deal with the test that Joseph has designed, behind the scenes Joseph is trying to work out his estrangement with their father. In his first encounter with his brothers in Egypt (42:6–26), their father is barely mentioned. The brothers identify themselves as “sons of the same man” (42:11) and “sons of a man in the land of Canaan” (42:13) before explaining that the youngest brother “is with our father right now” (42:13). This is the only direct reference to their father in the entire conversation.
However, when his brothers return to Egypt, Joseph questions them, “How is your aged father of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” Joseph appears ready to begin dealing with the reality of his father being alive. Yet, Joseph immediately turns his attention to his full-brother Benjamin, perhaps indicating that he is not completely ready to come to terms with his father.
Contrast this to the beginning of this week’s portion, where Judah passionately pleads with Joseph to allow him (Judah) to remain in Joseph’s custody in place of Benjamin. In the last seventeen verses of chapter 44, Judah uses the word “father” no fewer than thirteen times! It is reasonable to conclude that hearing these constant references to his father finally convinced an emotionally overwhelmed Joseph that it was time to reveal his identity to his brothers.
Having heard Judah refer to “our father” and “my father” again and again, Joseph claims him for himself by asking, “Is my father [really] alive?” rather than “Is our father [really] alive?” He might be prepared to reveal his identity to his brothers, but he is not yet ready to acknowledge that his father is also their father.
Joseph is no doubt aware that his father’s death will have a profound effect on family dynamics. In fact, when Jacob ultimately does pass on, Joseph’s brothers immediately express concern: “Perhaps Joseph [still] bears us enmity and intends to repay us for all the harm that we afflicted upon him!” (Genesis 50:15). Of course, Joseph has no such intent, recognizing that although his brothers did indeed intend to harm him, “God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people” (50:20).
But Joseph’s brothers are correct to be concerned. The passing of a family matriarch or patriarch often has a profound effect on relationships among the children and other surviving family members. While the person is alive, the respect for him or her prevents individuals from acting out and attacking one another. With the passing of the key family member, emotions that have been repressed often find their way to the surface.
Schisms between family members are not unusual. As a rabbi I often deal with families in which a parent is not speaking with a child or one sibling is not speaking with another. These schisms are painful, especially in a tradition that values family, and encourages honor and respect between family members. It is difficult to witness the conflicts between family members that are so frequent in Genesis: the fighting between brothers, the estrangement of fathers and sons, and the struggles that make it such an engaging and relevant book so many centuries later.
As the Book of Genesis moves toward its conclusion, the last of these schisms is resolved as Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and asks, “Is my father [really] alive?” More than a question, these words reflect Joseph’s coming to terms with his brothers and his father, allowing the entire family to come down to Egypt, reunite with one another, and ultimately allow Jacob to die in peace, knowing that his family is whole.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities. Rabbi Kadden blogs at: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/100gatestojewishlearning.