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Parashat Vayigash

  • Rav Michael Rosensweig


Among the most pervasive themes in Sefer Bereishit is that of "ma'aseh avot siman le-banim." The conduct and standards of the patriarchs establish ideals to which we should aspire and dictate the parameters of appropriate interaction and normative behavior for future Jewish generations. Hence, the midrash and later commentaries subject the motivation and behavior of the avot to microscopic scrutiny.

On the surface, the episode of Yosef and his brothers represents a rare opportunity to chronicle the ideal response to adversity and gross mistreatment. Following this line of thinking, one would have anticipated that Yosef, whom Chazal characterize with the appellation "ha-tzaddik," the righteous, would react to his victimization by his brothers with selfless graciousness, unqualified forgiveness, and boundless understanding. Yet, strikingly, we encounter an exceptionally complex and ambivalent posture, demanding clarification and analysis.


In Parashat Miketz, Yosef appears to toy with and manipulate his brothers. According to the Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishit 45:3), he puts them through psychological torture before revealing his true identity:

"Yosef said to them: 'Did you not tell me that this one's brother is dead? I will summon him and he will come to me.' And he called, 'Yosef son of Yaakov, come to me.' And they looked at the four corners of the house. He said to them, 'Where are you looking? I am Yosef your brother.' Immediately, their souls departed, and they could not answer him for fear."

Even when he evidently reaches out to them - "Geshu na elai, va-yigashu" - he uses deliberately enigmatic language, undoubtedly designed to leave them wondering about his true intentions. The term geshu connotes both appeasement and readiness to do battle. Moreover, his formulation - "I am your brother Yosef whom you sold to Egypt" - was bound to accentuate their guilt. In the next verse (45:5), as he seemingly allays their anxiety - "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" - Chazal understood that Yosef intentionally emphasizes the contrast between their malicious intent and God's divine providence. The fact that they were the beneficiaries of their own act of betrayal could not have been lost upon the brothers, nor could it have brought them much comfort. These ambivalent references take place even as Yosef risks his own life to protect the brothers' reputation in the eyes of Egypt (see Rashi and midrash on 45:1-2) and in the eyes of their father (see Ramban's commentary).

An analysis of various other verses (45:9-15; 22, 24), including those at the end of Sefer Bereishit (50:15-21), reinforces the impression that Yosef's ambiguous terminology was intentional, that his agenda was complex, and that his posture was ambivalent. How does all of this fit the picture of Yosef ha-tzadik?

Perhaps, Yosef's complicated response reflects his religious obligation as well as his personal need to assimilate and relate to that which he experienced at the hands of his brothers on different levels. Yosef's personal integrity as well as his historical responsibility precluded a simplistic, one-dimensional, unqualified forgiveness, although that approach might have been more personally satisfying.


On one level, Yosef simply did not have either the right or the capacity to completely absolve his brothers, as their crime transcended their personal confrontation. Yosef was not the only victim of the brothers' treachery. In his tone-setting revelation (45:3), Yosef perhaps intends to juxtapose his personal inclination to forgive ("I am Yosef"), with his role as his father's only reliable protector ("Is my father still alive?"). The message he effectively conveys is that only he deserves to be identified as his father's son, as the others have forfeited their role by virtue of the suffering they have inflicted (see Sforno). The Netziv notes that the term "chai," alive, connotes a certain quality of life associated with happiness, something which the brothers undermined, and which Yaakov only experienced again upon receiving the news that Yosef was alive - "And the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived" (45:27). According to many of the Rishonim, Yosef elected never to inform Yaakov of his sons' betrayal in order to minimize his suffering. In any case, Yosef was not in a position to concede his father's pain.


Moreover, Yosef was undoubtedly sensitive to the fact that Kelal Yisrael had suffered an irrevocable loss of spiritual leadership due to Yaakov's personal distress. This loss was compounded by the fact that the nation was in its most formative stages at the time. The term "Yisrael", used to designate Yaakov's destiny and legacy in his role as spiritual mentor to the nation, is largely absent from the Torah's narrative until Yaakov becomes aware that Yosef has, indeed, survived. The one prominent exception (Bereshit 43:6-11), in which Yaakov is uncharacteristically forced to take the initiative and set aside the personal grief that has paralyzed him in order to insure the future of Kelal Yisrael, provides a sharp contrast which reinforces this impression. (See, also, Neziv's comments on 43:6). Chazal convey this theme when they indicate that "And the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived" signifies the return of the Shekhina to Yaakov once he was able to extricate himself from the despair which had dominated his life during Yosef's disappearance. While Yosef might graciously forgive his brothers for their cruelty, the potential of those years of lost spiritual development for the Jewish nation could never be recovered.


Furthermore, the brothers' behavior constituted an enormous chillul Hashem. Chazal declare that even sincere repentance does not fully neutralize desecration of God's name. This harsh ruling reflects not only the severity of the breach, but also the fact that the impact upon others exposed to such conduct cannot easily be retracted.

Yosef's treatment at the hand of his brothers was hardly an ordinary case of chillul Hashem either. Consider the implications for others if the sons of Israel, who were destined to exemplify personal integrity and spiritual leadership, were able to exhibit such intense jealousy and cruelty to one of their own. Thus, Chazal perceive that the sale of Yosef was a betrayal of transcendent proportion and significance, which compromised the very standards of Jewish and even human interaction. The connection to the execution of the assara harugei malkhut (Midrash Mishlei 1 s.v. Kol hon yakar; see R. Bechai 37:28), the epitome of viciousness and cruelty, undoubtedly reflects not only punishment but some measure of cause and effect.

The broader implications of the sale of Yosef could not simply be dismissed or glossed over even by a Yosef ha-tzadik. Only by persistently accentuating the impact of their betrayal, even as he extended personal forgiveness, could Yosef hope to ultimately sensitize his brothers to the enormity of their flawed world view, and thereby begin the process of overcoming the effects of their behavior.


Yosef's complex and ambivalent agenda also facilitated the twin processes of teshuva and mechila. Teshuva entails a delicate balance between spotlighting and camouflaging sin. On the one hand, one must be careful not to embarrass the ba'al teshuva by reminding him of his sins (see Hilkhot Teshuva 7:8). At the same time, the need to confront one's errant past is a prerequisite for teshuva - "it must perpetually be before him" (see Hilkhot Teshuva 2:4,5). Yosef's use of ambiguous language contributed to this process by insuring that while his brothers need not be humiliated, they would also be encouraged to engage in a comprehensive introspection and fully confront the enormity of their actions.

Moreover, he may have intuited that their psychological well-being may have demanded some release of guilt. This need is already evident in their own projection of a link between their troubles in Egypt and their sale of Yosef before they were even aware of Yosef's identity, as documented in the midrash. Perhaps their response to Yaakov's death reflects this theme as well. Some render "lu yistemenu Yosef" ("lest Yosef hate us," 50:15) - as "halevai" ("would that he would hate us") - a secret desire to be punished or at least admonished for their actions. (Tur interprets the word accordingly, but takes an opposite approach to its significance.) In some circumstances, unwarranted and exaggerated kindness can be a form of cruelty.


The passage of time and the re-integration of Yosef within the shevatim did not significantly alter Yosef's complex posture towards his brothers. Possibly, this reinforces the impression that his reaction constitutes a normative rather than a primarily emotional response. The ambiguities and ambivalence persist and re-surface in the aftermath of Yaakov's death. Yosef, returning with his brothers from his father's funeral, stops at the pit in which his tribulations began to recite a birkat ha-nes (blessing on a miracle). Was his purpose to put the past behind him once and for all and to affirm the role of Divine Providence, or to provide a jarring reminder to his brothers? He responds to their concerns with ambiguous tears - "va-yevk Yosef be-dabram elav" (50:17), indicating, according to different views, either his continuing sense of anguish over what had befallen him, his sense of loss vis-a-vis his father, or an expression of pain at having been accused - falsely or accurately? - of harboring hostility toward his brothers. Undoubtedly, this range is not mutually exclusive, particularly if our analysis of the underpinnings of Yosef's perspective are correct.


R. Bechai concludes that Yosef came to terms with but never fully pardoned his brothers (50:17) - "His brothers asked for his forgiveness, but the Torah does not mention that he granted it. Our Sages have explained that one who sins against his fellow is not forgiven [by God] until he appeases his fellow. And even though the Torah mentions that Yosef "reassured them, speaking kindly to them" from which it seems that Yosef was appeased, we still never see the Torah mention that he forgave them, or that he absolved them of their guilt. If so, they died in their sin, unforgiven by Yosef, for they could not obtain atonement unless Yosef were to forgive them. Therefore, the punishment was stored away for a future time, i.e. the assara harugei malchut (ten leading scholars martyred by the Romans)."

The predominant rabbinic view, however, is that Yosef was ultimately able to embrace his brothers and extend his forgiveness, even if he was unable to fully absolve them of their guilt. The fact that he eschewed a simplistic and perfunctory act of mechila, electing instead to address the full implications of their betrayal ultimately enhances his stature as Yosef ha-tzadik. The Midrash Tanchuma concludes: "'He kissed all his brothers, and wept over them' - just as he only reconciled with his brothers through weeping... so does the yeshu'a (salvation) come to Israel only through weeping." May our sensitivity to Yosef's complex perspective hasten that yeshu'a.


(Rav Michael Rosensweig, an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion, is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan, Yeshiva University.)

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