Was Joseph really as forgiving as he seemed?
Table for Five: Vayechi
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Now Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.”
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
Would Joseph take revenge against his brothers after the death of Jacob?
It is remarkable that in Jewish tradition we are commanded to imitate God in all ways except one: “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Morality, according to Maimonides, is defined as emulating the Almighty. The sole exception is the biblical edict against the taking of revenge; that is reserved for divine justice alone.
Why? As the Rabbis put it, a man who desires revenge should dig two graves – one for himself. Vengeance, in the words of Anne Lamott, is “like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
In a remarkable post holocaust story, Allied soldiers wanted to give a gift to a group of young survivors who had endured the tortures of hell at the hands of captured Nazi officers. They handed the boys baseball bats and invited them to go inside and “get your revenge – our soldiers will look the other way and no one will document this.” With no words exchanged between them the now free Jewish prisoners stared at their shivering former oppressors and then spontaneously put down their bats. In recording the incident one of them explained: We walked back to town determined to rebuild our lives as Jews. We refused to allow the Nazis their final victory – the victory of bestiality over our humanity.
Joseph intuitively understood that revenge is best left to the Lord. That may well be the reason he is the only one of the patriarchal family granted the greatest accolade – Yosef HaTsadik, Joseph “the righteous one.”
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy, Judaics Faculty
Are you a pessimist or an optimist? How have you been responding to our current uncertain times?
In this week’s parsha, as the Joseph cycle comes to its conclusion at the end of Genesis, we see the brothers return once again to their stance of pessimism, fear, guilt, and lies in the face of uncertainties in their times. Sadly, despite all that has happened, they still don’t trust Joseph. With the Hebrew word “Lu” (“perhaps”) they choose to imagine the worst possible future, one in which Joseph takes revenge on them after the death of their father. In contrast, Joseph himself has prevailed against all obstacles, rising to unimaginable heights, with his trust in others and his unyielding optimism.
Rashi notices that the word “Lu” is unusual in our verse, with no other example of this usage in the Torah. Elsewhere “Lu” is sometimes used to denote a petition or hope. Outside of the Torah, Naomi Shemer’s song “Lu Yehi” (originally conceived as a Hebrew version of the Beatles’ “Let it Be”) famously uses this word to dream of the possibility of peace after the Yom Kippur War.
As we continue to confront this pandemic, will we imagine a future with the “Lu” of pessimism and fear, or with the “Lu Yehi” of optimism? As the lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber explain: “We all dream a lot – some are lucky, some are not / But if you think it, want it, dream it, then it’s real / You are what you feel…”
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Temple Ner Simcha, NerSimcha.org
If we look deeply, ultimately every choice we make is based in either faith or fear. It is a spiritual truth that the two cannot exist in the same space at the same time: the more of one, the less of the other. The remedy to acting out of fear is to increase our embracing of faith, and in so doing, deepen our conscious relationship with God.
This lesson was forgotten by Joseph’s brothers after their father’s death. They remembered the hurts they had caused Joseph, and rather than having faith in their brother as well as God, they were scared and expressed that fear to Joseph in this verse. Joseph’s answer of “Have no fear!” (50:19) a few verses later is a reminder to all of us to always have faith in the Eternal One and in each other.
In these times when the entire world seems to be locked in cycles of fear, it is more important than ever that we remember these words of Joseph. The world is in chaos, people are being ostracized out of fear, and it seems as if much of society is even trying to inculcate our children into a fear-based psychology.
But we are Jews, and we must remember to be lights to the world by embracing faith: faith in God, each other, and our Jewish communities to do what is right and true to Jewish teachings.
May we all choose faith over fear in every moment; and see our faith rewarded with joy, good health, and peace.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
“Ein mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah – there is nothing early or late in the Torah” – meaning sometimes things appear out of order, but we can learn from those purposeful placements. The most striking part of the verse, “And the brothers of Joseph saw that their father had died,” is that just a few verses earlier, they had surrounded their dad in his last moments and buried him in elaborate fashion. So why is this verse in this place?
There are members of a family who act as connector pieces. They plan gatherings, invite distant cousins, call the often forgotten great-uncle on his birthday. That person might not be everyone’s favorite, but they convene. Joseph was his family’s connector. Not through phone trees or networking apps, but through relationships with his siblings and father. The family stays together because of Joseph’s quintessential role.
When Jacob died, that changed. Rashi said that Joseph no longer invited the brothers to his table, for example. The reason for convening family changed for Joseph when Jacob died. Does he owe anything to them any more? Is there any reason for family gatherings without Jacob around? The brothers seemingly only notice months later the impact of their father’s death, explaining the placement of our verse.
My father says that when someone dies, they have been plucked out of a boat mid-river; and everyone remaining changes their position and task to keep the boat moving and balanced on the water. What must we do to convene, connect and balance the people close around us?
Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, Freelance Writer
When Yosef’s brothers, fearing for their lives, relayed a message to Yosef asking for forgiveness and explaining that G-d was very much alive, they were telling Yosef what he already understood.
Instead of expressing bitterness at his brothers for their cruelties, Yosef amazingly chose to use the moment to comfort and inspire them. Yosef said, “You planned to do bad things to me, but G-d had already intended that what you did to me should happen for good reasons: to make things like they are today, so I can provide food for more people.”
Like every human, Yosef had to climb out of a pit and make his own way up and out, but unlike most, he never blamed anyone else for the episodes in his life that were not ideal. Just as years later, Mordechai tells Esther, “Who knows whether it was just such a time as this that you have attained the royal position!” Yosef was perhaps the first to know that every one of our steps is lovingly directed and carefully arranged by Hashem.
“No detour is random, and every stop along the way has a purpose,” writes Rabbi Yaakov Bender. Yosef was made great because he provided food to Egyptians and Jews, but the real nourishment he shared with others was his firm belief in hashgacha pratis: that everything we experience is part of a Divine Plan that helps us to best fulfill our missions that most benefit K’lal Yisroel and create a home for Hashem.
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