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Family matters

How will Joseph convince his brothers that he is not secretly plotting revenge against them? (Vayechi)
Joseph with his father and brothers (

It’s been close to 10 months since our world has been turned on its head.

So much of what we had come to take for granted in life is no longer a given. We have lost the ability to shop as we choose, travel where we want, eat out when we please, and gather to pray, dance, or socialize as we wish.

We have had to adapt our daily routines, work online, social distance from everyone we know, wear masks wherever we go, rethink the dynamics of our most basic relationships, be ready to quarantine every once in a while, and adjust to having swabs stuck down our throats and up our noses.

Perhaps most difficult, though, has been the effect that this pandemic has had on extended families. Many senior parents have not felt comfortable visiting or hosting their children and grandchildren; siblings in different countries have been unable to see each other; and regular family get-togethers around holidays, birthdays, or milestone celebrations have been called off or indefinitely postponed.

Not to mention the deep longing I have to hug my parents, whom I have not touched in months.

Apparently, all the emails, WhatsApps, phone calls, FaceTimes and family Zooms just do not measure up to some in-person quality time.

We have learned, more than we ever knew, that family matters.

Which is why the story of Joseph and his brothers is even more tragic and difficult to think about this year than previously.

For 22 years, Joseph was separated from his family. Sold into slavery by his own brothers, he finds himself on his own in Egypt, completely distanced from his home and all of his relatives. After being accused of sexual impropriety by the wife of his master, Potiphar, he is thrown into jail, where he is further isolated for many years. Even after his fortune turns, and he is let out of prison, is appointed by Pharaoh to help govern Egypt, and marries and has two children, Joseph still has no contact with his father and brothers.

It is too painful for us to really imagine what those years of loneliness must have been like.

When Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers in last week’s parsha of Vayigash, it is an emotional reunion. Joseph tells them not once, but four separate times, that they should not be sad or afraid that they sold him. Rather, they should understand that it was clearly God’s will that he be in Egypt in order to help their clan survive years of heavy famine.

After the initial shock of this revelation, they embrace, and the brothers and Joseph cry together. Joseph then dispenses gifts and sends his brothers back to Canaan to share the news with their father, Jacob, and to pack up and move their families down to Egypt.

Revelation. Reconciliation. Reunification. Relocation.

Jacob’s family comes to Egypt, and there, Jacob lives out his last 17 years, surrounded by his children and grandchildren in the region of Goshen. What a happy ending to a terribly awful period of time! After all those lost years, the family is back together.

But life is often more complex than it appears to be. While the family has moved down, they have not necessarily moved on.

In this week’s parsha, Vayechi, Jacob dies, and Joseph and his brothers travel together to their homeland to bury Jacob alongside his forbearers in the Cave of Machpela.

When they return to Egypt, we are told that:

“Joseph’s brother’s perceived that their father was gone, and they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us, and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.’ So they instructed that Joseph be told, ‘Your father gave orders before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you evil,’ so now, please forgive the spiteful deed of the servants of your father’s God.’ And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:15-17)

Even after years of living together and interacting with one another, Joseph’s brothers do not trust him. They assume that his kindness to them was an act so as not to cause further pain to their father. Now that Jacob has died, they are convinced that Joseph will take revenge for the years of devastation they brought upon him. And so, they lie and tell him that as a last wish, Jacob has commanded that Joseph forgive them for their sins.

And Joseph weeps.

He weeps because all he wants is a connection to his family, to be one of the brothers, to love them and to be loved in return.  And he first realizes now that, even after their reunion, they are not really united.

He cries because perhaps he never told Jacob what had truly transpired, but his brothers clearly think he did.

He cries because he needs them to comfort him, but instead he must comfort them.

“And Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for am I in place of God?’” (Genesis 50:19)

Using almost the exact same words that Jacob uttered many years ago in a stinging attack on Rachel long before Joseph was born, Joseph, now with a very different tone, reminds his brothers yet again that he is not looking for revenge.

“‘Although you intended to me harm, God intended it for good…’ Thus he comforted them and spoke to their heart.” (Genesis 50:20-21)

Joseph had every reason in the world to seek retribution. But all he wants is restoration.

He yearns for brotherly bonds. For deep relationships. For connections forged through a shared history and a future dream.

He wants to forgive and forget. Everything was meant to happen. God wanted it this way. It was all for the best. Let’s move on.

How often do we find ourselves in the same place? There is tension. There is hurt. It is hard to forgive. But we want to forget, to smooth things over, to make it all better. Too much is at stake.

Family matters.

It breaks Joseph’s heart, and he weeps when he realizes that his brothers still do not believe him. That the relationship is not yet fully repaired. That, ironically, it is he who will have to try again, work harder, be more convincing.

But he will.

And he does.

Because family matters.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg (née Lerner) teaches Israeli and American post-high school students and serves as mashgicha ruchanit in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a yoetzet halacha, a contributing editor for Deracheha: and the author of the book: "What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life's Crossroads and in Everyday Living" (Maggid, 2021). Prior to making aliya in 2011, she worked as a yoetzet halacha for several New Jersey synagogues and taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. She lives in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband, Judah, and their five children.
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