How could Yosef instruct his overseer to bring his brothers back and thus delay them when his father was living in the grip of a famine?
(44,4) “They went out from the city, they had not gone far, and Yosef said to the overseer of his house: Arise, chase after the men, and when you reach them say to them - Why have you repaid evil for good?”
The Yalkut Shimoni brings a Midrash which says that our posuk “They went out from the city, they had not gone far"(לא הרחיקו)” is explained by the posuk in Yehoshua 3:4 “there should be a distance (רחוק) between you and it of two thousand cubits”. This Midrash is very puzzling.
But behold, the Midrash on the posuk 43:16 “bring the men (Yosef’s brothers) into the house, and slaughter an animal and prepare (והכן)” teaches that this took place on Erev Shabbos, because the word והכן signifies preparation for Shabbos, as the posuk in Shemos 16:5 says “and it will be on the sixth day and they will prepare (והכינו) that which they will bring”. But if so, this would mean that the brothers’ return trip the following day - “the morning became light, and the men were sent on their way (44:3)” - took place on Shabbos morning, and thus they profaned Shabbos! It must be that they were permitted to do so because Ya’akov and his household were in danger of starvation because of the famine, as we see from Rashi’s explanation of the posuk 42:1 “why should you appear so?” - why should you become thin because of the famine? And when there is a danger to life the laws of Shabbos are pushed aside.
But this creates a difficulty with the behaviour of Yosef, because he knew that his brothers were travelling on Shabbos, and he must have known that they would not have done so unless there was a danger to life. If so, how could he have instructed his overseer to bring them back, and not be concerned about his father and his father’s household who were in the grips of a famine?
But maybe the correct explanation of the posuk “why do you appear so?” is like the other explanation of Rashi - why do you appear in front of the children of Yishmael and the children of Eisav as if you are satiated - because at that point in time they still had some produce. Thus, Yosef would have seen that the faces of his brothers were happy and that they had the appearance of wealthy men, as it explains in the Yalkut, and from this Yosef understood that they still had food at home. And Yosef would also have understood that although they had left the city, they had not gone beyond the two thousand cubit limit that it was permitted for them to go on Shabbos, and the reason why they had left the city was because Yosef, whom they still had not recognised, had spoken harshly to them, so they wished to give the impression that they had left in order to avoid giving Yosef a further opportunity to speak harshly to them.
But Yosef wanted to arrive at the truth and determine whether they had food in their home or not, and thus determine which explanation of the posuk “why do you appear so” was the correct one, and therefore he commanded his overseer to pursue them. That is, he instructed him that if he should see from a distance that they have not gone beyond the two thousand cubits, this would prove that there is no danger to life, and therefore he should pursue them. But if he sees that they have gone beyond this, then it is clear that there is a danger to life, and so he should not pursue them.
Thus the Midrash that we first brought explained that “they had not gone far” means that they had not travelled two thousand cubits, because this was the sign that Yosef gave to his overseer which would determine whether he should pursue them or not.