We read in Parashat Vayeitzei of Rachel’s infertility after marrying Yaakov, how she remained childless for several years while her sister, Leah, who was also married to Yaakov, bore children in quick succession. Rachel approached Yaakov in anguish and exclaimed, “Give me children, and if not, I will die!” (30:1).
Yaakov angrily replied, “Am I in place of God, who has withheld from you fruit of the belly?!” (30:2) – correctly noting the absurdity of Rachel’s demand that he “give” her children, when God had made her infertile.
The Midrash, in Bereishit Rabba (71), famously criticizes Yaakov for his sharp response to Rachel, relating that God said to Yaakov, “Kakh onim et ha-me’ikot?” – “Is this the way to respond to women in distress?!” According to the Midrash, God told Yaakov that because he spoke to Rachel this way, “your sons will stand before her son.” This refers to the story of Yosef – Rachel’s son – whose brothers sold him as a slave and later ashamedly came before him to beg for compassion. Somehow, the Midrash found a link between that tense exchange between Yosef and his brothers and Yaakov’s tense exchange with Rachel here in Parashat Vayeitzei. This connection is developed more fully by Tanchuma Yashan (Vayeitzei 19), which notes a textual parallel between the two contexts. Just as Yaakov responded to Rachel, “Am I in God’s place?” Yosef similarly responded to his brothers after they begged him not to avenge their crimes against him, “Do not fear, for am I in God’s place?!” (Bereishit 50:19). According to this Midrashic passage, God told Yaakov that because of the way he spoke to Rachel, her son would speak to his sons with the same expression – “Am I in God’s place” – that he used in speaking to her.
A number of writers raised the question of how to explain the Midrash’s intent in connecting these two responses. Yaakov’s response of “Am I in God’s place?” was made – according to the Midrash – insensitively, criticizing Rachel for her complaints instead of compassionately empathizing with her plight. Yosef, on the other hand, gave this response in compassionately assuring his brothers that he did not seek revenge, that since his sale as a slave proved to be part of God’s plan to save the family and the region from hunger, he did not plan on punishing them for what they did. The Midrash, however, appears to view Yosef’s forgiving response to his brothers as paralleling Yaakov’s insensitive response to Rachel.
Apparently (as noted by Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Darkhei Chayim), the Midrash here understood Yosef’s response to his brothers differently. Rabbeinu Bechayei, in his commentary to Parashat Vayechi (see also Or Ha-chayim), controversially asserts that Yosef did not actually forgive his brothers. In this exchange, he informed them that he was incapable of exacting revenge because their crime ended up benefiting him and the entire region – indicating that Yosef did not forgive them, but felt barred from acting on his feelings. It appears that the Midrash explained along similar lines, interpreting Yosef’s response as cold and unsupportive – like Yaakov’s response to Rachel. Rather than graciously granting his brothers forgiveness and assuring them he no longer harbored hard feelings towards them, Yosef instead told them only that he could not harm them – without trying to ease the burden of conscience that weighed heavily upon their hearts. And in this sense, it seems, the Midrash detected a parallel between Yaakov’s response to Rachel and Yosef’s response to his brothers. In both instances, the person responded with the cold, hard truth, instead of with the warm compassion that was needed. Yaakov told Rachel plainly that he could not help her conceive, and Yosef told his brothers that he felt incapable of harming them, implying that otherwise this would be considered. The Midrash finds fault in both Yaakov and Yosef, because when dealing with “me’ikot” – people in distress, special sensitivity is required. Yaakov was expected to offer words of consolation to Rachel, despite her unwarranted complaints, and Yosef was expected to speak reassuringly to his contrite brothers, despite the crime they had committed against him many years earlier – because when people are distressed or anguished, we must treat them in an especially forgiving manner and in a way that eases, not exacerbates, their emotional pain.