Parashat Va-Yehi: The Final Reconciliation between Joseph and His Brothers: A Lesson for us All

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Dec 28, 2009

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph seeks to pay us back for all the wrong that we did him!”  So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death, your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so to bring about the present result- the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)

In Parashat Va-Yigash we read how Joseph not only announced that he forgave his brothers, but provided for their welfare in Egypt as well. Although Joseph had forgiven his brothers, the brothers could not be faulted for suspecting that his behavior towards them was partly, if not exclusively, motivated by a desire to keep up the appearance of a full reconciliation in front of their aged father Jacob. From this perspective, Jacob, as the father of all twelve brothers, was the glue that helped keep Joseph involved with his brothers in Egypt. But the brothers suspected that the newfound affection was not genuine. Although they had repented of their bullying ways, they wondered if Joseph, who had been the victim of their behavior, would now seek to extract punishment. They beg for mercy, and Joseph responds magnificently, with magnanimity and beneficence.

Looking at this last chapter of the drama from the perspective of all four parshiyyot (Va-Yeshev, Miqqetz, Va-Yigash and Va-Yehi), one sees an interesting pattern in the communication between Joseph and the brothers. It is as follows:

In Va-Yeshev, after a certain point, the brothers no longer speak to him. And when they throw him into the pit and later sell him, they do all the talking. Joseph cries, but they do not hear. There is no communication.

In Parashat Miqqetz, the brothers and the ruler (=Joseph) talk to each other, but they do not know that it is their brother whom they had harmed so many years ago. Thus there is still no communication between “Joseph and his brothers.”

In Parashat Va-Yigash, when Joseph reveals himself to his siblings, he speaks, but they do not. But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him. (Genesis 45:3)

Finally, in Parashat Va-Yehi, is there real communication between the brothers.  First the brothers send the instruction (or message) that they claim Jacob had sent them to plead with Joseph not to take revenge upon them. Rav Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag=Gersonides), in his list of useful ethical lessons derived from this episode, accepts the notion found in the Gemara that Jacob never actually left such instructions, and quotes the statement of Hazal that the narrative teaches that in order to attain peace, one may indeed tell an untruth (in this case, the claim that Jacob had indeed directed them to send such a message),

In any event, the brothers subsequently speak personally to Joseph. Yet it is also true that the Torah does not record the substance of what they said to him, but only mentions the contents of the instruction in the name of Jacob that they had sent him. Is this indicative of something more significant? Avivah Zornberg, in her recent book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (New York, 2009), Chapter Eleven (“What If Joseph Hates Us?”), writes that “the brothers never actually confess and apologize for the past to Joseph’s face (p. 326).” Additionally (ibid.), she writes that “the brothers’’ failure is implicitly matched with Joseph’s; what they do not do mirrors what Joseph does not do…Joseph does not actually forgive his brothers.”

For my part, I have never read the last chapter of Parashat Va-Yehi in that manner. In terms of peshuto shel miqra, I, on the contrary, understood this second communication from the brothers to Joseph as quite possibly going beyond what they had claimed in the “letter in the name of Jacob.” Now the brothers, in an unmediated encounter with Joseph, beg for forgiveness. They plead, We are prepared to be your slaves, and Joseph magnificently responds: Have no fear…and so fear not. I will sustain you and your children. Thus finally, in Parashat Va-Yehi, the brothers have verbally expressed their remorse to Joseph, have fully repented, have been reassured of their forgiveness from Joseph, and now were indeed able to live the rest of their lives in equanimity.

Why, then, does the Torah not record the contents of the personal apology of Joseph’s brothers to him? Perhaps an idea that Maran Ha-Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zatzal, has expressed in other contexts can apply here as well. The Rav said:

“It is certainly vulgar to freely discuss the deepest secrets of your marriage with total strangers. The relationship between husband and wife is sacred and personal, and a person of modesty would never desecrate it by allowing a third party to intrude into the private inner chambers of his emotional life. Yahadus considers the God-man relationship similarly tender and intimate, and in fact often compares it to a marriage…” (See David Holzer, The Rav: Thinking Aloud [2009], p. 322. The context of the quote is the notion of the Rav that this is why certain statements of Hazal express disapproval of the fact that the Torah was translated into Greek [the Septuagint]. )

Perhaps in the same vein, one can understand that this final moment of reconciliation between the brothers and Joseph is too private to be shared with anyone, even the subsequent readers of the Torah. There is enough evidence to assert that the brothers did indeed repent and that Joseph did indeed forgive them. And the musar haskel for all of us is equally apparent. The final words between the parties themselves, however, were or them (and for God) alone.

We must also understand what the final encounter between Joseph and his brothers teaches us about the development of Joseph himself. He had already forgiven his brothers in Parashat Va-Yigash! Is this final episode just a recapitulation of the admittedly magnificent height that he had reached fourteen years earlier? Indeed, a comparison of Ralbag’s ethical lessons in Parashat Va-Yigash and Parashat Va-Yehi on this score, which both stress the virtue of forgiveness, and the magnificence of Joseph in doing so, do not seem to indicate any difference (from the point of view of Joseph) between his statements in the two parshiyyot.

There is, however, one important addition in Joseph’s words in Parashat Va-Yehi. Joseph adds: Am I a substitute for God? (Genesis 50:19). Various explanations of what is added by this phrase have been advanced over the centuries. One prominent one was offered by R. Hayyim ibn Attar, known by the title of his work the Or Ha-Hayyim (Hasidim are careful to say Or Ha-Hayyim Ha-Qadosh!). He suggests that Joseph was comparing what had transpired to a case where one tries to kill his adversary by having him drink a poisoned chalice. The cup, however, is   switched, and the man who was supposed to drink the cup does not do so. The plotter might have wanted his adversary to die, but God evidently did not want the plan to succeed. And since nothing actually happened, the one who attempted to murder his fellow is not punished. Thus, Joseph was saying, “Evidently, in saving me God also ensured that you would not succeed in carrying out your crime. Thus, it would be wrong of me to punish you for a crime that God wished that you would not successfully commit. Hence I will not punish you for the attempt alone.” (The early twentieth-century figure Rav Mayer Don Plotski, in his work Keli Hemdah, makes a fascinating halakhic deduction from these words. Even though the Talmud in Massekhet Nazir (23a) deduces that one is punished for the very thought of a sin, according to this notion of the Or Ha-Hayyim one will perhaps claim that the Talmud limits the scope of that moral/religious concept to sins against God (such as a person thinking that he is eating pork when he is actually eating kosher meat). But with regard to sins between man and his fellow man, one is only punished for damages that are actually consummated.)

I would like to offer an explanation that is line of the theme within the Joseph saga that I have been developing over these four weeks, namely, the concept of “the bully, the bullied, and the bystander,” the repentance of the perpetrator of the harm that he had caused, and the subsequent relationship between the various parties.

One of the reasons why we can go back over and over again to the Joseph saga is that it “ends so beautifully.” Joseph’s brothers ask for forgiveness and he grants it with magnanimity. But, granting the theological axiom of human free choice, it needn’t have been so. The brothers could have secretly nursed their resentment at Joseph until the day they died. Who knows what is in another person’s heart?

When Joseph’s brothers made their initial appeal to him based upon the instruction of Jacob (whether or not one grants that Jacob actually sent such a directive), one can suggest that Joseph then realized that although their repentance was sincere, they had harbored suspicion that his forgiveness was not sincere! They had wondered if he was merely “biding his time” until the death of Jacob! Now, the verse in Mishlei (27:19) states: As face answers to face in water. So does one man’s heart to another. If they thought that his forgiveness was not sincere, perhaps their request for forgiveness was not sincere? Was the contrition of the brothers, for their part, sincere or not? Joseph realized that even though it was, it was not fated to have been. Things good have ended differently.

At this point, Joseph faced a challenge of personal growth, not so much with his brothers but with himself. Would he have been able to carry on with his life if he would have concluded that his brothers had never given up on their hatred or least, their resentment of him? Some stories do not end beautifully. In this vale of tears we call olam ha-zeh, some interpersonal conflicts never end. Some bullies move on without ever taking account of what they had done. Some people are wronged, damaged and harmed, and the wrongdoers live the rest of their lives happily without making up or atoning for it. And the bullied have to make an ultimate decision: Will they give the bullies the power to determine the rest of their lives?  Or will they be able to emotionally/existentially free themselves of the bullies?

This is where the notion of the invocation of God comes in. Whether or not one formally agrees with the notion of R. Mayer Don Plotski, one may say that Joseph understood that to perpetuate a cycle of revenge would mean to still be bound by the brother’s actions towards him so many years beforehand. And Joseph had moved beyond that. He had successfully moved on. And he surely was not going to return to a place that he had moved on from.

But why is so hard, in this world of ours, 3500 years after the saga of Joseph and his brothers, for people to accomplish this feat? The realization that interpersonal relationships do not exhaust the emotional life of a person may be part of what is necessary to accomplish what Joseph did. Or at least, it can help a person get to the place where he needs to go. One has his own internal obligations bein adam le-‘atzmo. And one has the obligations bein adam la-maqom: between man and God.

I would homiletically suggest that Joseph told his brothers, and also told himself, Am I a substitute for God? In the final analysis, only God punishes people. And in the final analysis, one’s obligations to God are of more importance than the remembrance of the thwarted attempts of bullies to do harm. God wanted Joseph to live. Joseph knew that. And Joseph did live, and accomplished great things in spite of his brothers’ attempts to defeat him. He emerged victorious, not only from the attempts of Potiphar’s wife to corrupt his virtue, but from his brothers’ attempts to hurt him. And it was no longer necessary to dwell on the past. True, the brothers did repent and Joseph did forgive them. But more fundamentally, bein adam le-atzmo, Joseph was able to summon the magnanimity of heart and beneficence to realize that the brothers’ actions towards him were ultimately irrelevant.

Joseph’s final actions concern the future generations of kelal Israel, those that will be born after both his brothers and he will have left the scene.  Joseph was able to die secure in the knowledge that he played an important role in the preservation of his family, and that eventually his descendants, along with those of his brothers, would all return to Israel. John Dryden’s poem Happy the Man states:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,  He who can call today his own:  He who, secure within, can say,  Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.  Be fair or foul or rain or shine  The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.  Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,  But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour. 

Thus, the conclusion to Sefer Bereshit: At length, Joseph said to his brothers,I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob’ (Genesis 50: 24-25).



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