In this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov dies, finally ending the Yoseif story as well as Bereishis, the first book of the Torah. It is a tender parsha, full of blessings, coping with loss, and the duties of mourning. But from the brothers’ loss, where we should have seen the ultimate unity, we instead see a tragic discord.
As Yaakov’s death draws near he calls all his sons in for a blessing. Each son receives a unique blessing that will carry through to the tribe that that son will yield. Even Ephraim and Menasha, Yoseif’s sons, are given special blessings and even a pseudo tribe status.
Yaakov is embalmed and all of Egypt mourns for 70 days. Following this the brothers and their family travel to Canaan to bury Yaakov in the cave in Machpelah (which Avraham purchased back in Chayei Sarah). Upon their return, an interesting exchange happens…
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.” So they commanded [messengers to go] to Joseph, to say, “Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”‘ Joseph wept when they spoke to him...
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts. (Bereishis 50:15-21)
Now Yoseif’s brothers saw that their father was dead???
After all the above, the burial and the 70 days of mourning, it’s when they return home they notice their father is dead? It makes no sense. What’s the Torah is illuminating, as Rashi points out, is that the brothers now felt Yoseif was now different to them. Where he once greeted them warmly, now that Yaakov was gone, Yoseif was cold.
So the brothers devise a plan so Yoseif will think his father (via message) commanded him to forgive the brothers. Yoseif sees right through their ploy, but comforts them saying, it all turned out for the best, I will take no revenge. And that’s pretty much the end of that. But… it’s not.
Something is Missing.
If you look above in the text, two things are missing. One, the brothers do not actually apologize. This is an example of an unfortunate and all too often attitude. Just because it all turns out for the best, doesn’t mean we’re free from making amends.
Yes, because of the brothers, Yoseif rose to the highest ranks in Egypt. And with that prominence he saved the world from starvation, established Egypt as the ultimate super power, made a home for the Jewish people, and lived a life of wealth and luxury. None of that would have happened if the brothers hadn’t sold Yoseif. But despite that fortune, that doesn’t change the fact that Yoseif was thrown into a pit to die, worked for years as a slave, spent over a decade in prison, and was robbed of all that time with his father. Can you imagine the fear, pain, exhaustion, doubt, and worry Yoseif had to endure? But the brothers don’t make amends for that. Instead, the brothers come just short of saying, You should thank us!
It’s an excuse to abandon compassion.
Unity from Humility.
And then there’s the other thing missing above. That Yoseif doesn’t actually forgive them. Instead, his response is “Am I instead of God?” Yoseif is on a level of knowing that justice is ultimately distributed by God, but by the fact that he says, “You intended to do evil to me…” implies he’s still bitter. As if to say, justice is up to God, but if it were up to me, you’d pay.
It can be argued that the single biggest problem facing the Jewish people today is a lack of unity. I’ve talked about the power of unity before. And there are those who say that the discord comes from this very moment. So what is the obstacle to unity? A focus on self. The ego.
Both sides lack humility in this moment. The brothers are only coming to Yoseif out of a sense of fear and not a true desire to make amends. And Yoseif? Sure, he “comforted them and spoke to their hearts.” But Rashi tells us Yoseif deep down he wasn’t real with the mentality, I am a part of a whole and maybe it was necessary for me to suffer, that being sold wasn’t from them. He let his emotions get in the way of achieving the highest level of humility.
This struggle to overcome our ego is so necessary that Rambam says arrogance is one of the two traits that we should completely rid ourselves of. It is a tremendous level to achieve and obviously the brothers didn’t reach the bar. But someone will. Who? Well did we just finish the first of the Five Books of Moses.
This blog post is made in dedication to the memory of Rav Reuven Biermacher HY”D, beloved Rebbe of Aish HaTorah who was one of the victims of the Jaffa gate stabbing on December 23, 2015. He is survived by his wife and seven children. We are all saddened by the loss.