The Magnificent Final Reconciliation of Joseph and His Brothers

Ask author
December 30 2008

In Parashat Va-Yigash, after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and exclaims (Genesis 45:4) I am your brother Joseph , he whom you sold in Egypt, he makes the following declaration (Genesis 45:4-8):

    Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made be a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

Yet it seems that his brothers were not convinced that he had forgiven them. Hence, after Jacob died, near the end of Parashat Va-Yehi (Genesis 50:15-21), we read the following:

    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 as 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.

But how did Joseph’s second declaration, with essentially the same language, change matters in their eyes? (To be sure, R. Ephraim Luntshitz, the author of the work Keli Yaqar, mitigates the issue somewhat by suggesting [in his commentary to Genesis, Chapter 50] that the brothers did not truly fear that Joseph would harm them; they were only concerned that he would not provide them with a special added degree of care. But if one understands the biblical phrase pay us back for all the wrong that we did him as denoting a real fear of harm middah ke-neged middah, one cannot interpret the verse in that fashion. And if the brothers possessed a real fear, that Joseph would harm them, what changed this time?)

Perhaps the fact that the brothers saw that Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him made the difference. Language can be min ha-saphah ve-la-hutz, as the Israeli expression goes: People often do not mean the words that they utter. It is much, much harder to fake tears. The brothers intuitively knew that Joseph’s tears were genuine, and that he indeed did sincerely forgive them. The Netziv, R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, in his commentary Ha-‘Ameq Davar (ad loc.) stresses the spontaneity and immediacy of Joseph’s tears.

For my part, I wish to stress the phrase Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good. The previous declaration of Joseph does mention that his brothers sold him into Egypt, but mentions nothing more. But the brothers knew that they had harmed Joseph much more grievously than that! They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us (Genesis 42:21). Given that the memory of their cruel behavior was burned into their consciousnesses, for Joseph to merely say you sold me hither could seem like a whitewash! And if it was a whitewash, how could they feel that Joseph really was sincere?

In psychology, the concept of working through pain is very important. In many cases, if one tries to skip steps, one will remain psychologically incomplete. The same holds true for mourning the death of a loved one. One must go through all the steps of mourning before one can move on. Of course, the same holds true for teshuvah, for repentance. (Indeed, many of the insights of Maran Ha-Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zatzal, on teshuvah illustrate that the halakhot of teshuvah express the notion of working through the feelings of self-loathing as a consequence of the sins one has committed, and a affirmation to re-create oneself anew.)

Joseph’s brothers had indeed worked through their feelings and were really truly, sorry for what they had done. And Joseph, as the brothers now understood, had also worked through his feelings and had forgiven them. He did not gloss over the fact that they had terribly, horribly mistreated him. He used the phrase Besides, although you intended me harm, which can be seen as a response to their phrase the offense (pesha) that the brothers had used in their missive to Joseph. Keli Yaqar points out that the phrase pesha specifically refers to the fact that they had wanted to kill him, and the Netziv adds that it refers to the fact that their cruelty towards him was far beyond that expected of a brother. But now, many years later, Joseph worked through it all and he was ready, able and willing to forgive.

But how did he do it? The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard writes in his book Fear and Trembling about a man who keeps on attempting to put himself in Abraham’s position and is constantly trying to answer the question, “How could Abraham perform the Aqedah?” Before one answers that question of devotion bein adam la-maqom, perhaps one should first attempt to answer a question bein adam la-havero: how could Joseph achieve the magnificent magnanimity to forgive the harm that they intended him? The answer is that Joseph recognized although they desired to harm him, God intended it for good. What does that mean?

Philosophers distinguish between the proximate cause of an event and the ultimate cause. The former is an event which is closest, or immediately responsible, for causing some observed result. This exists in contrast to a higher-level ultimate cause which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred. These terms can correspond roughly to the use (by late medieval Jewish {and non-Jewish} scholastic philosophers) of the terms primary cause and secondary cause. God is the ultimate, primary cause of what happens in this world. But God works through secondary causes. To be sure, any particular individual agent possesses free will and may choose to harm someone. But God has many agents. And His purposes are for the good. Thus, the actions of any particular secondary agent are really not that significant. Joseph accordingly worked through the pain that his brothers caused him by realizing that all human efforts are ultimately not that significant. The world is ordered by a Divine Being. He wanted Joseph to live. Moreover, God wanted to maximize the number of people who would be saved from the famine and consequently survive. God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result- the survival of many people.

And, in a final, magnificent display of Imitatio Dei, the Imitation of God, the highest spiritual level that a human being can reach, Joseph also reached into his heart and found enough love to wholeheartedly help his brothers and their families. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.


    More from this:
    Leave a Comment

    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Chana and Paul Gelb in memory of Rabbi Levi Meier on his yahrtzeit