“And Yosef could no longer hold back, from all those standing around him…” [45:1]
For months, Yosef had kept up appearances. He treated his brothers coldly, as if he did not know who they were. Now, however, he “could no longer hold back.” He declared himself to be their brother, and immediately asked, “is my father still alive?”
Why did Yosef wait all this time? Why did he not send a message to his father at the first opportunity? When he was serving in Potiphar’s house, he could have sent a messenger, or certainly when he was placed over Egypt. And he could immediately have told his brothers who he was.
Yosef realized that no part of his life story had happened by chance. He was sold, then placed over Potiphar’s house, then imprisoned when he did nothing wrong. And in one day he went from being a prisoner to being second in command over the entire country, simply because he recognized that fat cows might represent years of plenty. He was put in charge long before his prophecies were realized, with no proof that his interpretation had merit.
Then, when his brothers came to Egypt, they didn’t recognize him. How could that be? Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, says that when he left them at seventeen he didn’t have a beard, and now they found him with a beard. Do we no longer recognize close friends, much less brothers, if they grow or shave their beard? Yosef recognized that there was a reason behind all of this.
That his brothers sold him into slavery was an extreme manifestation of the conflict and disunity between them. Yosef knew from his dreams that the brothers were to all bow before him, lowering themselves rather than entertaining their petty conflicts. And, says the Shem MiShmuel, their doing so would demonstrate that they had cleansed themselves of the sin of selling Yosef.
This is why he spoke harshly with his brothers, and caused problems for them. They had to recognize that what was happening was a consequence of their own wrongdoing, and correct themselves. Now, when Yehudah came to argue with Yosef, taking leadership but repeatedly calling himself and his brothers “servants” of Yosef, Yosef’s goal had been achieved. And at that moment Yosef could no longer hold back his natural inclination to treat them as brothers, and to ask about the welfare of his father.
All events, even the most terrible, are orchestrated by Hashem for some great purpose we may not understand. What we do know is that they often provide us opportunities for growth and improvement.
The terrible events of two months ago did not merely throw us into mourning; for many of us, they were a wake-up call. Like Yosef’s brothers, people are setting aside petty disputes, and realizing that what unites us as Jews is far greater than our differences. They are also taking on observances, both in memory of those we have lost, and as a merit to protect the captives and the soldiers placing themselves in harm’s way to rescue them and protect their brethren.
We must recognize this special time, and do something extra, some improvement in our religious and interpersonal conduct, to participate in this moment of inspiration. And there’s no reason to stop with one such improvement!