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Home » Family Life, Vayechi

Vayechi: A Cast of Brothers

Submitted by on December 15, 2018 – 9:16 pmNo Comment | 1,718 views

Joseph and his brothers had a rocky relationship. Over the years there had been some pretty bad times. They resented him and thought he maligned them to their father. For his part, Joseph didn’t help matters when he shared his grandiose dreams that cast him in the role of king and them in the role of servants. Finally, things came to a head when they rose up and sold him into slavery.

Joseph did well in Egypt and was appointed viceroy. But when his brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph put them through the ringer. First, he accused them of espionage. Then he forced them to bring Benjamin to Egypt. Then he framed Benjamin for theft. Only after he saw his brothers stand up for Benjamin did he accept that they had truly repented and changed their ways.

He then revealed his identity to his brothers and sent for his father. The Torah describes the scene of Jacob and Joseph’s heart stopping reunion. The Torah then describes the dramatic events of Jacob’s last days. His conversations with Joseph, his blessings to his sons, and finally his passing and funeral.

The Tears

But the Torah saved the best for last. Having returned from Jacob’s funeral, the brothers feared that with their father gone, Joseph would exact revenge against them for the terrible injustice they had done him. They sent some of the brothers to represent them and beg for Joseph’s forgiveness.

How did Joseph respond? He cried. He broke down in bitter inconsolable tears. The brothers thought that the years of pent-up pain had finally given way and Joseph was grieving his lost childhood. Upon seeing this, the rest of the brothers rushed into the room and assured him that they stood ready to suffer the consequences of their actions. They offered themselves up as slaves.

But they had it wrong. Joseph wasn’t crying over his lost childhood. Joseph was crying because their words made him realize that the terrible events of the past continued to plague him in the present. Joseph had allowed himself to think that his brothers had gotten over the terrible divide between them. He thought the past betrayals were as closed to them as they were to him. He had assumed that they now viewed him as their brother, an integral part of their family. Yet, the realization came crashing in on him that all these years, his brothers had felt uncomfortable in his presence.

They were unable to let go of their guilt and still viewed Joseph with remorse and fear. There was distance between them and he had never seen it. From his perspective, the past was forgotten, and he felt intimately connected to his brothers, but he now knew that from their perspective, they were still uncomfortable around him. They were still afraid of what he might think and what he might do.

They misunderstood the reason for his cries and ran in to assure him that they were truly contrite and prepared to suffer the consequences, but this only reinforced Joseph’s consternation. He realized that he couldn’t just cry about it. He had to gather himself and communicate. Brothers, he said, how can I replace G-d? I am not your master, you can’t be my slave. You and I stand equally in G-d’s service. We are joined at the hip. We serve in fellowship and brotherhood, but at G-d’s pleasure. Not mine.

Your Perspective

He went on to say, “you thought for evil, but G-d figured it for good.” The ordinary explanation for these words is this. You thought to harm me, but G-d turned it around and gave me power in Egypt, which ultimately helped me save father and you. However, some commentators took a different view of the words, “you thought for evil.” [1] They interpreted these words as, you thought I was evil. I understand why you sold me into slavery. You thought I was wickedly hounding you and maligning you to our father.

I want you to realize, said Joseph, that I never saw the sale as a crime. I knew you thought I deserved it. You were wrong on the facts; I never badmouthed you to our father, I never saw myself as separate from you or better than you. But you thought I did, and from your perspective, I needed to be removed before I caused irreparable harm. You responded to the threat in a justifiable way. I understood that.

Moreover, G-d figured it for the good. I don’t resent you for my lost youth because the price I paid was ultimately worth the benefit it procured. Had you not suspected me and sold me, we all would have died of hunger. It was only due to your honest mistake, that we were all saved. In other words, you are not in my debt. It is I who am in your debt. If not for your honest mistake, I would not have risen to power in Egypt and would have been unable to save myself or you. I owe you everything that I have today.

We Are Brothers

Therefore, don’t see yourself as strangers at my table. My table is your table, my home is your home. We are brothers, a family, there is no distance between us. The Talmud says that if you depend on others for bread, your life is not a life.[2] Joseph was assuring his brothers that though he would support them all their lives, they had no cause to feel as if they were benefitting from another’s largess. I am no stranger to you. We are brothers. My home is your home.

How did Joseph pull off this perspective? It sounds almost impossible for a human being to be that good. Did he really bear no grudge or resentment for the mistreatment and abuse that he suffered?

Our sages provided some insight. Suppose your right hand cuts your left hand with a knife, they said, would you cut your right hand in revenge?

This only works when we see others as extensions of ourselves. When we barricade ourselves behind walls of resentment, we live in an unhappy place of isolation. We might protect ourselves against outside danger, but we become dangerous to ourselves. When we lower our guard and reach out, treat those who hurt us as if they are extensions of ourselves, we begin to see things from their perspective.

Notice that Joseph made all the self-justifying arguments for his brothers that we usually use to justify our own behavior. Yet, Joseph made them for his brothers. Why? Because Joseph managed to view his brothers as part of himself. He, therefore, assured them that his table was their table and his home was their home. I am heartbroken to think that you don’t view me as a full member of the family, a full member of our circle of brotherhood. I don’t see you that way. In my eyes, we are one.

The Lesson

The Torah doesn’t tell us stories just for the sake of storytelling. Every story in the Torah carries a lesson for us all. The lesson of this story is clear. If you bear a grudge against someone for something that happened many years ago, pick up the phone and make amends. You might undeservedly release your brother from blame, but you will gain something even more profound. You will free yourself from Isolation.[3]


[1] Seforno on Genesis 50:20.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 32b.

[3] This essay is based on Haamek Davar on Genesis 50:17-21.

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