Yosef’s brothers confront him in this week’s Torah portion of Miketz. The obvious question is: why hadn’t they figured out who he was? Yosef unintentionally dropped so many hints that it seemed obvious he was Yosef; how were they able to turn a blind eye?
The Torah states, “Now Yosef was the ruler over the land; it was he who sold grain to the entire populace of the land, and Yosef’s brothers came and prostrated themselves to him, with their faces to the ground. And Yosef saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he made himself a stranger to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, ‘Where do you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan to purchase food.’ Now Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Breishis 42:6-8).
The Radak first quotes Rashi, that the reason why the brothers did not recognize Yosef but Yosef recognized the brothers was because he left them without a beard and now he had a beard; but they all had beards when he left so he recognized them but they did not recognize him. However, the Radak continues, “that it was really possible for them to recognize Yosef even though he now had a beard, except for the fact that they saw him in a high position of leadership and it was so farfetched in their eyes that this was Yosef who they sold as a slave and now he is master over all of Egypt. They said in their hearts that even though he looks like Yosef, there are many people that look a little bit similar to each other, therefore it left their hearts that this was Yosef.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The brothers were face to face with the viceroy of Egypt and he looked exactly like Yosef. Yet they literally could not believe their eyes; in reality they didn’t want to believe their eyes. Although they knew about Yosef’s dreams that they would bow down to him, and in fact they even came to Egypt looking for Yosef, they still were unable to put two and two together, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The Radak goes on to explain the end of pasuk 7, that Yosef purposefully estranged himself from his brothers by speaking to them harshly and calling them spies. This was in order to remove the possibility that he was Yosef from their hearts and minds. But they had many hints afterwards, which should have given away, the fact that the person in front of them was actually Yosef. Just to name a few, for example, when Yosef heard the brothers talking amongst themselves expressing their regrets for what they had done to him, Yosef, pasuk 24 based on the Radak says he started crying because he saw them admitting fault, and he had to run out of the room to compose himself. Afterwards, the pasuk says Yosef threw Shimon in jail right in front of the brothers; but the Radak quotes a medrish (Breishis Rabba 91:8) that says that after they left Yosef took Shimon out of jail, fed him, washed him up, and anointed him with oils to freshen up. Wouldn’t that tip off at least to Shimon that something strange was going on and allow him to consider that he might indeed be his brother Yosef? In fact, when Shimon was reunited with hos brothers, he could have told them this viceroy might actually be Yosef, but he never thought about that! (Click here for Hebrew text.)
When the brothers came back to Egypt with Binyamin, Yosef invited them to eat with him, they still thought that he was up to no good, and that there was no way that he might actually be their brother, being nice to them. The Radak on perek 43, pasuk 18 says that the brothers were saying to each other that this viceroy of Egypt was trying to find excuses to take them as slaves by first contriving a plot to find them guilty on charges of stealing their own money that they paid with. He was being nasty to them from the start, so now by inviting them to eat with him he was setting up a trap to make them his slaves. They didn’t hear what Yosef had told his servants, to fill their bags with money as gifts to comfort them. He even told them in pasuk 23, “Peace shall be with you, you shall not be afraid, your G-D and the G-D of your fathers gave to you treasures in your bags. Your money came to me, and he brought out to them Shimon.” Even though Yosef attributed their good fortune of finding money in their bags to Hashem, still they didn’t get the hint. This wasn’t even the first time he had mentioned G-D. Before in perek 42 pasuk 18 Yosef said, “On the third day, Joseph said to them: “Do this and live I fear God.” The Radak there says Yosef is telling the brothers, I fear G-D and I would not keep all of you because there is a famine in your house, and it would be a travesty [to not allow you to feed your household], rather I would keep only one of you to interrogate. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Then, in pasuk 33, Yosef sits them at the table by age, youngest to oldest, and the pasuk says that they were of course shocked; how did he know? The Radak says the brothers were shocked that this viceroy was able to know their age order, for how was he able to recognize who was older from amongst people that were all born within 7 years of each other? This was astonishing in their eyes, yet still it wasn’t fishy enough for them to connect the dots that he must be Yosef. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from here how far the bias of denial can stretch. The brothers refused to acknowledge the possibility that Yosef became second in command in Egypt and his dreams came true. Therefore even though he looked like Yosef, and there were many hints that it might actually be Yosef, they still never put two and two together until he actually revealed himself as being Yosef, their brother.