Food supplies in Egypt were in the hands of their own brother Joseph, but they did not know it. Long before, they had sold him as a slave, and there had been no communication with or from him for years.
In due course they were to discover his identity and to see the family reunited, but not yet. In the meantime, the delegation set off from Canaan on the shopping expedition that would hopefully enable the family to eat.
What does the Torah say? “And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn from Egypt” (Gen. 42:3).
But why only ten of them? Where was the eleventh, Benjamin? And why are they described as “Joseph’s brothers” and not “Jacob’s sons”?
To answer the first question, Jacob would not let Benjamin accompany them for fear that some danger would befall him (verse 4).
Rashi makes the important point that harm can befall a person at home too. (Don’t we know it in our own generation, when more accidents happen at home than on the roads?).
However, adds Rashi, Satan is especially ready to make mischief when people are on the road, where there are many outside forces that one cannot predict or control.
Another way of looking at the number ten is to link it with the concept of the minyan; a minyan brings together ten otherwise separate individuals and unites them for a common purpose.
Here, as Rashi also points out, there were ten separate people who had found it difficult to agree on family policy such as their feelings for or against Joseph, but when an economic challenge faced them they were able to make common cause.
Perhaps this is why they are called “Joseph’s brothers”; there is something sarcastic about the phrase, because the one thing on which they had hitherto not been united was their brotherliness towards Joseph.