Yonatan Udren

Parshat Vayechi: Speaking the Language of Love

“But Joseph said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I in place of God? You intended to do me harm, but God intended it for good…'” (Bereishit 50, 19-20).

Well, we’ve finally reached the end of the story of Yosef and his brothers, as well as the entire book of Bereishit; and though our story does have a happy ending, the final reconciliation of Yosef with his brothers is far from straightforward.

In Chapter 50, the last chapter of the book, the brothers all return to Egypt after burying their father Yaakov in the family’s burial cave, the Maharat HaMachpelah, in Hevron.

The brothers are terrified; now that their father has passed away, Yosef can finally take revenge against them. They send a messenger to Yosef with the following words: It was our father’s dying wish that you forgive us for our act of treachery.

Upon hearing the message, Yosef immediately breaks down in tears; but the text does not reveal his motive. Why does Yosef cry when he hears these words?

Yosef does not send a message in return. Now fearing for their lives, the brothers come to see Yosef themselves, and upon seeing him, they throw themselves down on the ground: we are your servants! They proclaim.

Yosef’s response is unanticipated. We would expect him to say, “You are forgiven,” or “I have let go of the past, we are flesh and blood.” But instead he responds: “Have no fear! Am I in place of God? You intended to do me harm, but God intended it for good…”

Who said anything about Yosef being in place of God? The brothers made no theological or philosophical statements. They are simply begging for their lives! But Yosef tells them that despite their intentions to harm him, God had other plans. God brought me to Egypt, said Yosef, so I could sustain you and your families.

Without delving into a whole discussion about freewill vs. determinism, we can clearly see that Yosef’s worldview is vastly different from that of his brothers. It’s almost as if they are speaking two different languages. And maybe they are.

We have theological models from our great mystics and philosophers which can articulate Yosef’s interpretation of Divine Providence. But if we had to describe Yosef’s worldview through the language of experience, Yosef’s experience is of God’s unending love for him.

Even down in the bottom of the pit, Yosef was never alone. As a prisoner in the dungeon, G-d’s name never left Yosef’s lips. He was abandoned by his family, by his master in Egypt, and by the servants of Pharaoh; but in Yosef’s heart, God never abandoned him. 

And so now, at the end of the story, when Yosef hears his brothers begging for their lives, he cries. He cries because his story is a story of God’s never-ending love and compassion for him and his family. 

But the brothers can only speak the language of fear. They cannot see beyond the ominous presence of Yosef, with all of his power. Worst of all, they cannot see the hand of the Divine in their own story. 

So Yosef cries. And then the text tells us that Yosef “spoke to their hearts.” Through the language of love, Yosef opened their hearts to the presence of the Divine in their incredible story. 

Fear, anxiety, worry…these emotions not only damage our bodies, they damage our souls. One of the last messages that Yosef leaves us with as we close the book of Bereishit is the need to open our hearts to God’s presence in our own stories. The power of Yosef is his ability to see the hand of the Divine not only at the end of the story, when the good is revealed, but even at the bottom of the pit. Yosef never lost his connection to God’s everlasting love. 

So as we close the Book of Bereishit, I have a question for you: were there moments where, even in the darkest times of your life, you still were able to feel God’s love? Or were those moments filled with fear? Or both?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash, which offers a Jewish home away from home for English-speaking olim and overseas students in Jerusalem.
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