Why Didn’t Yosef Contact His Father?

There is an interesting moral dilemma that arises in the parshios at the end of Bereishis. The issue that confronts us is as follows: How could Yosef not have contacted his grieving father to let him know that he was still alive? Once Yosef rose to power, surely he was capable of sending a messenger to his distraught father — yet he does not do so. How could he possibly act in this way? Why wouldn’t he have gotten word to his father that he was, in fact, alive and ruling a country? Indeed, Ramban poses the question quite well:

Ramban on Genesis 42:9:

שעמד יוסף במצרים ימים רבים והיה פקיד ונגיד בבית שר גדול במצרים איך לא שלח כתב אחד לאביו להודיעו ולנחמו כי מצרים קרוב לחברון כששה ימים ואילו היה מהלך שנה היה ראוי להודיעו לכבוד אביו ויקר פדיון נפשו ויפדנו ברוב ממון
Once Yosef spent many days in Egypt, and rose to power in the house of a great man in Egypt, how could he not have sent even one letter to his father to inform his (that he was yet alive) and to comfort him? Since Egypt is close to Chevron at only a six days’ journey away, and it would have been justified to travel a year to honor his father; to give his life and spend much money!
היה יוסף חוטא חטא גדול לצער את אביו ולהעמידו ימים רבים בשכול ואבל על שמעון ועליו ואף אם היה רצונו לצער את אחיו קצת איך לא יחמול על שיבת אביו
Yosef would have been sinning a great sin to torment his father, and to leave him for many days in mourning and grieving over Shimon and over himself. And even if he wanted to hurt his brothers slightly, how could he not feel compassion/pity for his grieving father?!

Ramban proposes his own answer to this most troubling question:

אבל את הכל עשה יפה בעתו לקיים החלומות כי ידע שיתקיימו באמת
Rather, he did it all at its correct time so as to fulfill his dreams, as he knew that they would be fulfilled correctly.

Ramban then goes on to elaborate on this idea, but most readers tend to find it at best an underwhelming response to what seems to be a much stronger question. I’m not so sure, however, that the answer is as underwhelming as people first assume.

In truth, I think this answer of Ramban must be viewed together with the principle set out by Ramban earlier in his commentary, namely that the actions of our forefathers were signs/designations for all future generations. In this way, the Avos were aware of their dual identity. They were living their own lives, but must also have been very cognizant of the fact that their lives and actions would dictate all future generations (to some extent). As such — through whatever channels available to them — the Avos were aware that certain things had to occur in a specific way, and at a specific time, so as to set the course for all of history yet to come. Yosef, for whatever precise reason he may have had, felt that the order of events had to be a particular way, and informing his father that he was still alive too early simply was not be part of the plan, so to speak.

I very much think that this is the understanding that Ramban was driving at; feel free to disagree.

Yaakov’s Role In This

Ramban’s solution to the problem of why Yosef did not contact his father is not the only one, however. Many suggest, and I am partial to this explanation, that Yosef must have felt that his father was in cahoots with his brothers. After all, Yaakov rebuked and expressed disbelief in Yosef’s dreams just as the brothers did (Genesis 36:10); and it was Yaakov that sent Yosef to the field the day he was sold to “check on his brothers” in the first place (Genesis 36:14)! Were we in Yosef’s position, it would be hard not to suspect that Yaakov planned the whole thing with the brothers to get rid of him after hearing of his delusions of grandeur.

Surely, this was not in fact the case. But if Yosef did indeed think his father had a part in his being sold into slavery, it makes perfect sense that he didn’t go out of his way to contact him.

The Father Of His Household

I would also like to suggest one other possible explanation for why Yosef did not contact his father from Egypt. If we take a look a few chapters later in Bereishis, when Yosef is naming his children, we find the following:

Genesis 41:51:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי
And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’

Yosef states unequivocally that he had forgotten his father’s house. This is a most peculiar statement, until you see it as an answer to our question. Yosef didn’t contact his father because he had forgotten him. Not in the absolute literal sense, of course, but rather meaning that he had moved on; he had forgotten and left behind the pain that his brothers, and potentially even his father himself, had caused him, and had pushed forward with his life. He had forgotten his father’s house, and had forgotten the toil and tribulations he experienced there. With God’s help, Yosef explains, he was able to put that part of his life behind him, and look only towards the future.

To have contacted his father once in power in Egypt would have been to have unearthed a buried demon; to have reverted back to a painful past when Yosef instead wanted only to press forward to a brighter future.

A Bit Of All

In truth, none of these suggestions are mutually exclusive. When you put them all together, one begins to see a pretty clear picture, from a number of different perspectives, as to why Yosef never sent word to his father that he was still alive. Indeed, the question now almost becomes why he would have sent word to his father.

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