Vayigash: Did Joseph Ever Forgive His Brothers?

The great British author William Blake wrote: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. “The only thing that would be harder would be to forgive a brother, but not just a brother: a brother who has sold you out to slavery and robbed you of your youth. And so, as the brothers and Joseph come to a heartwarming meeting and reconciliation, we are left with the question: did Joseph ever forgive his brothers? Could he ever forgive them for what they have done? It turns out that the answer to this, like so much else about Joseph’s life, is elusive.

As Judah approaches Joseph at the beginning of the Parsha, Joseph attempts to carry his social experiment until the end. Joseph would like to find out if, once again, the brothers will sell out one of their brothers, in this case, Benjamin. Joseph wants to see if he can take Benjamin from them as a slave without protest, or if they will make sure to fight for him. As Joseph sees Judah speak in the sharpest of ways, demanding Benjamin back, he can no longer keep the mask on his face.

“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, “Take everyone away from me!” So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

If shock can ever be tangible, this would be the time.

One can cut the air with a knife, as the brothers no longer know what to believe.

Many commentaries wonder, why is it that Joseph introduces himself with those words? The two parts of his sentence seem so incongruous: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

If indeed, Joseph worried about his father, he should have asked about it earlier. Surely, Joseph did not need to include the question in his very first sentence. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great 18th-century scholar and dean of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, shares the following insight. The brothers’ strongest argument for the release of Benjamin was their father’s well being.

“And now, when I [Judah] come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us [since] his soul is attached to his (the boy’s) soul, it will come to pass, when he sees that the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoary head of your servant, our father, in grief to the grave.”

When Joseph says, “I am Joseph”, he is not introducing himself. He is issuing the most scathing rebuke the brothers could have heard. “I am Joseph!”, the one you sold into horrific slavery. “Is my father alive?!” You didn’t worry about him when I was sold! Why weren’t you thinking of our old father when you sold me?!

And so, the brothers are speechless.

“but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.”

The Godly and angelic tone in Joseph’s words cannot be ignored. Here he is, looking at the same brothers who have robbed him of his youth, freedom, and almost of his very life. Joseph is able to share with his brothers his belief that ultimately it was all for good. At the same time, one can argue that Joseph is not forgiving; he is just resolving to move on. Joseph tells the brothers to bring their families to Egypt and promises to take care of the entire family.

Once Jacob hears about Joseph’s life and ascent to power, he comes to Egypt with the entire family, famously, with seventy family members. So much of what happened between Joseph and the brothers, remains taboo. No family therapy. No working through issues. No Kumbaya. Everyone seems to move on with life. The desire to normalize relations as quickly as possible dominates everyone’s priorities. Was there forgiveness, or did Joseph just want to move on? What did Joseph mean when he told the brothers: “let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.”?

Dr. Ayelet Seidler, a Jewish studies faculty member at Bar Ilan University’s Midrasha program, points out that Joseph’s words here, are so similar, yet so different from words he uses once his father dies. While Joseph’s original statement speaks of it all being for good, asking the brothers not to worry, once Jacob dies, Joseph says something very different.

After Jacob’s death, the brothers fear Joseph’s retribution is finally coming.

“His brothers also went and fell before him [Joseph], and they said, “Behold, we are your slaves.” 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”

Joseph’s tone is assuring, yet far less positive. He tells the brothers they intended to do evil. He tells his brothers they are deserving of punishment. He tells them he will sustain them, but nothing like what he had told them when their father was still alive.

Furthermore, had Joseph fully forgiven his brothers, it is unlikely they would be concerned that he is about to kill them.

Rashi, the great Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki shares a Midrashic insight along these lines:

Now Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died: What does it mean that they saw? They recognized his (Jacob’s) death in Joseph, for they were accustomed to dine at Joseph’s table, and he was friendly toward them out of respect for his father, but as soon as Jacob died, he was no longer friendly toward them.”

Joseph’s friendship to the brothers was far greater to them when his father was still alive. This, Rabbi Shmuel Slotsky argues, explains so much more of what was going on. The brothers fear that Joseph was going to kill them once their father died, was actually very well-founded. After all, this is exactly what had happened just one generation ago.

“And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing that his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Jacob. “(Genesis 27)

The brothers were somewhat right that Joseph was treating them better because their father was still alive. It is not hard to imagine the brothers thinking of the time Joseph said: “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” as Joseph wanting to know if he can take revenge of them already; checking to see if he can do so if Jacob is no longer alive.

In a complex world in which interests, history, emotions, needs, and the desire for justice all swirl together, forgiveness takes on many different meanings. This was more clear than ever after the Holocaust. The young state of Israel needed to establish its international connections quickly and strategically. David Ben Gurion was determined to build a strong relationship with post-war Germany and accept reparations from them. Menachem Begin reviled and despised this very thought. No one had thought that forgiveness was possible. The murder of six million Jews whose blood did not dry yet could never be forgiven. The question was about moving forward, could Israel establish a good relationship with Germany. David Ben Gurion thought they could.

So did Joseph ever forgive his brothers? We will never know. We will know that Joseph was an incredibly pragmatic and wise man. Joseph decided to move forward for the sake of the future, his children, and the Abrahamic mission. We will never know if he forgave his brothers or not. Enduring an attempted murderer and being sold into slavery as a young seventeen-year-old is not something we can ask to forgive easily. So what can we learn from Joseph? What can we learn from this story? We must learn to weigh all sides, to be pragmatic, and forward-looking. Despite all the pain and betrayal, Joseph was able to recognize God’s plan in all of this. He was able to overlook malicious intentions and remember the good that came from all of this.

In a world in which people hold grudges even against those who did not harbor ill intentions towards them, in a world that demonizes even those who seek our good, and in a society that questions the intentions even of those taking positive action, we must look up to Joseph. We must see the good, be pragmatic, and always remember, there is a plan behind everything.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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