In perhaps one of the most emotional and dramatic scenes in the Bible, the unrecognized Joseph, regent of Egypt, orders the enslavement of his younger and only full sibling, Benjamin. Judah, the half-brother originally responsible for the sale of Joseph into slavery, confronts the regent and pleads for mercy (Genesis 44:18).
Judah gives a long and moving monologue, explaining the special relationship Benjamin has with father Jacob, of the fatal effects if they are not reunited, and how Judah himself is willing to become a slave in Benjamin’s place.
The irony of the situation is acute. The brothers who were so eager to sell Joseph into slavery are now going to extreme lengths to prevent the same fate from occurring to the last son of Jacob. They appear to be repenting from their previous attitude of brotherly enslavement.
Joseph can no longer handle the display of fraternal loyalty and maintain his charade. He shouts for every person except the brothers to leave his presence, and then in a cry that reverberates throughout Egypt, reveals himself: “I am Joseph!” (Genesis 45:3)
The very next words that Joseph speaks are difficult to understand: “Is my father still alive?” Of course his father is still alive! One of Judah’s arguments for sparring Benjamin was to keep Jakob alive. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to this question of Joseph, the very first words he utters to his brothers as his revealed self.
Sforno answers that Joseph was accusing the brothers.
Joseph is asking: How is my father still alive after my own disappearance? Why weren’t you concerned for his well-being when you sent me into a long and indefinite bondage? It’s so nice that all of a sudden you are so caring for Benjamin, but how could you have betrayed me and our father with my slavery and silence all these years?
The next words of the same verse state: “and the brothers were not able to answer him, for they were fearful of him.”
The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Chagigah 4b) explains that the shock and shame of the brothers at this moment was so intense that they were literally left speechless with no defense they could provide for their crimes. The same Talmud continues that if the reaction to the reprimand of a man of flesh and blood is so bad; imagine how severe God’s reprimand will be for our own personal crimes and misdemeanors.
Nonetheless, after Joseph’s initial revelation and accusation, he becomes conciliatory, forgiving them and explaining his view that his sale into slavery was really part of a divine plan to save the entire family of Jacob.
Jacob’s family is then finally reunited and united, and the brotherly rivalry is set aside — for a least a number of centuries.
May we always strive for brotherly bonds, within our families, our communities and throughout our people.
To my brother Kalman, living in Tifrach in the Negev, which has now become the front line of a very real battle. May God continue to protect him, his family and all the residents around Gaza.
The letter was addressed to President of France Félix Faure, and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French General Staff officer sentenced to penal servitude for life for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the first page of the newspaper, and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel on February 23, 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.
Other pamphlets proclaiming Dreyfus’s innocence include Bernard Lazare‘s A Miscarriage of Justice: The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair (November 1896).
As a result of the popularity of the letter, even in the English-speaking world, J’accuse! has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against a powerful person.