When Joseph becomes viceroy, he gets married and has two children:
What does נשני אלקים mean? It’s a rare word in תנ״ך; there are (by my count) only 3 other places where it unambiguously has the same meaning as here. The problem is that a שרש like נשה tends to lose the נ in prefixes and the ה is often dropped, so it’s hard to tell if a word comes from that root or from any other one with a ש. Also, the root נשה has a completely independent meaning of “creditor”, which doesn’t fit with our text.
But in other contexts, the word is a synonym for שכח and and antonym of זכר:
So נשני אלקים means, as Artscroll puts it, “G-d has made me forget”.
What does that mean? It can’t literally mean that Joseph has forgotten his family; he’s mentioning them explicitly. Rashi translates it as “diversion”:
He’s thanking G-d not for making him forget his family but for allowing him to not think about it anymore.
But, while it may be true that Joseph doesn’t perseverate about being taken from his home, why celebrate it? Why include that in his son’s name? Contrast this to Moshe’s attitude:
This gets into a larger question of why Joseph doesn’t write home in all his time in Egypt. He never tries to contact his father. It’s understandable that when he was a slave he couldn’t do anything, but he becomes viceroy of Egypt at the age of 30. Surely he could send a message to Chevron, let his father know he is still alive. Why is he silent for nine years, until the brothers come down to him?
Rav Yoel bin Nun wrote an article on this, in the first issue of Megadim (available on his website). His proposed solution was controversial, and there was much back and forth over it in the next few issues. But it seems to me to be the only satisfactory answer, and it complements the approach of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky in the אמת ליעקב.
Ramban explains that Joseph was trying to make his dreams come literally true. He wanted his brothers to come first (their sheaves bowed to his in the first dream), and only then could his father come (the sun and moon bowing to him in the second dream). He kept silent in a long-term plan to fulfill the dreams.
Everyone argues with the Ramban. What gave Joseph the right to make his father suffer for nine years, just to make a dream come true? If it was a נבואה, then fulfilling it is ה׳'s job, not his!
And even if we allow that Joseph would be that cruel, this doesn’t fit the text itself:
Artscroll cites a Midrash:
Now, I haven’t found the original source for this but I have heard it from multiple sources, and Artscroll accepts this as the reason for Joseph’s silence. But it’s very hard to take literally. Why should Joseph be bound by an oath taken by his brothers? Why should he be concerned about a חרם from his brothers? He’s already been banned, kicked out, sold into slavery. I’m willing to take this seriously but not literally. And I don’t know what to do with it.
Rav Bin Nun turns the question on its head: Why doesn’t Jacob contact Joseph?
Rabbi Leibtag, discussing Rav Bin Nun’s article, points out that all of ספר בראשית has been a process of בכירה, of choosing a representative of ה׳ to the world. Others, even from the same family, are rejected. Yishmael is sent away from Abraham’s house; initially Jacob is sent away, and when he returns, Esav leaves:
There was no inherent reason that this process would not continue in the next generation; one could imagine that only one of Jacob’s children (or at most, one lineage—the children of Rachel or the children of Leah) would be the “chosen people”. In fact, that was likely the brother’s reason for getting rid of Joseph:
So, Rav Bin Nun hypothesizes, Joseph realizes that his father isn’t looking for him. The only reason could be that he was rejected, expelled from the ברית אבות. Maybe he misinterpreted his father’s instructions; he wasn’t sent to Shechem to check on his brothers but to be tried and found guilty.
Yochanon Silverman notes that Joseph was orphaned from his mother at the age of 8. Maybe the כתנת פסים wasn’t a symbol of future leadership but meant simply to be a comfort.
Rav Bin Nun doesn’t explicitly say so, but he describes Joseph going through something very like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief:
Denial and anger:
Then a sort of bargaining:
Depression at being forgotten:
And then acceptance:
And that is what the name is all about. Joseph is thanking ה׳ for allowing him to get to this point of accepting his destiny. He will not be part of the עם סגולה. But he can still be successful:
Joseph is still יוסף הצדיק, though. If he is to be an Egyptian, he can be a good Egyptian—(בראשית מב:יח) את האלקים אני ירא.
And he would be a moral Egyptian leader:Rav Kaminetsky proposes that Joseph tried to get the Egyptians circumcised to try to control their lust, make them more moral people.
Then that all changes when his brothers come down and suddenly, ויזכר יוסף את החלמות. And he realizes that maybe he still has a role to play in the destiny of בני ישראל.