Why Didn’t Yosef “Phone Home”?


After thirteen years of slavery, Yosef experiences a dramatic transformation when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is appointed viceroy over Egypt. Yosef serves in this position through the seven years of plenty and into the years of famine before being reunited with his family.


Why doesn’t Yosef contact his father and family after his rise to prominence in Egypt? As the Ramban asks: “One can only wonder…. After Yosef ’s multi-year sojourn in Egypt, how could he not have sent even one letter to his father to inform him and to comfort him? After all, Egypt is only a six-day journey from Hevron. Respect for his father would have justified even a year’s journey!”

Yosef ’s failure to contact his father may well be the most difficult issue arising out of the entire Yosef story. Surely Yosef must have known that his father had been mourning his loss over the years. How could he, then, have been so callous as to neglect to communicate with Yaakov concerning his survival and unimaginable success in Egypt?



The Ramban offers a consistent approach to Yosef ’s seemingly strange behavior: the same forces that shape Yosef ’s actions towards his brothers after they appear before him in Egypt also prevent Yosef from contacting his father. The Ramban, among others, claims that Yosef, at this point in his life, does not see himself as a free agent. Instead, he is motivated by what he believes to be a divinely ordained mission.

Yosef believes that he is not a free agent, but rather the divinely chosen instrument for his family’s salvation. He further believes that his early dreams in his father’s home were a reflection of God’s plan and that he is now obligated to bring that plan to fruition. He cannot, therefore, contact his father prematurely. He must wait until the time comes when the dreams can be fulfilled.

The same objections that were raised, however, to the Ramban’s explanation of Yosef ’s treatment of his brothers can be raised here, as well. Who appointed Yosef as God’s agent concerning the fulfillment of the dreams? As Rabbi Yitzchak Arama maintains: “As for the dreams… leave it to He Who sends them to make them come true!”


A careful reading of the text may reveal a totally different explanation for Yosef ’s silence towards his father.

Yosef does not contact his father, after ascending to the position of Egyptian viceroy, simply because he cannot. Any attempt at such contact would have endangered not only his newfound status, but his life.

In fact, a clear case can be made that Yosef ’s most dangerous period in Egypt actually begins when Pharaoh appoints him viceroy over the Egyptian Empire. At that point, Yosef enters a court of intrigue, a palace that has already seen the king’s butler and baker imprisoned, each accused of trying to undermine the king.

Yosef is suddenly surrounded by powerful figures who resent his authority, even as they pine for their own advancement. He finds himself in a world where he can trust no one, where any messenger he sends to Canaan might simply turn around and report him to a member of the court or even to the king, raising accusations of dual loyalty against the new viceroy.

A series of hints in the text serves to underscore Yosef ’s emergent vulnerability:

1. The first indication of potential trouble emerges at the moment of Yosef ’s appointment to the position of viceroy. After hearing Yosef ’s interpretation of his dream, Pharaoh immediately turns to those present and exclaims: “Could we find another such as him – a man in whom there is the spirit of God?”

Pharaoh’s public reaction shows remarkable cunning. This is an extremely delicate moment for the king. He is about to leapfrog a lowly Hebrew slave above all of his officers and advisors. Pharaoh therefore turns to all those present in the palace and effectively says to them: You have seen what I have seen and heard what I have heard. Is there any among us more talented or capable than this Hebrew slave? Were any of you, other than he, able to interpret my dream correctly? Speak up now – “could we find another man such as him…?” Speak up now or forever hold your peace.

In a brilliant tactical move, Pharaoh involves his own officers in Yosef ’s selection so that it will not come back to haunt him. We can be certain, however, that Yosef ’s appointment did not sit well with the many advisors present who desired their own advancement.

2. Yosef ’s isolation from those around him, even after his ascension to power, is driven home in a powerfully poignant scene as the narrative continues. When Yosef ’s brothers return to Egypt a second time, Yosef surprises them by inviting them to a meal in his palace. The Torah describes the seating arrangement at this state dinner: “And they served him [Yosef] separately, and them [the brothers] separately, and the Egyptians who ate with him separately, for the Egyptians could not bear to eat food with the Hebrews, it being an abomination to the Egyptians.”

The Egyptians, apparently, are not only unwilling to eat with Yosef ’s brothers, the foreigners, but they are unwilling to eat with Yosef, as well. In their eyes, Yosef remains a “Hebrew.”

3. Later, when Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers the Torah offers a startling observation: “And the news was heard in the house of Pharaoh: ‘Yosef ’s brothers have come!’ And it was pleasing in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.”

Why would Yosef ’s reunion with his brothers be a source of satisfaction to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians?

The Ramban and the Sforno each suggest an answer, of which the common denominator is the recognition of inherent weakness in Yosef ’s position in Egypt before the appearance of his brothers.

4. The full extent of Yosef ’s vulnerability is only revealed, however, in the negotiations surrounding his father’s request to be buried in the Cave of Machpeila in Israel. Yaakov’s seemingly simple deathbed request puts Yosef, for all of his power, in a position of great danger. The Egyptian viceroy will have to call upon all of his diplomatic skills in order to safely negotiate the fulfillment of his father’s wishes.

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.