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Vayigash — Were Yosef’s brothers bullies?

Vayigash  Dec. 31. 2022

In this week’s Torah portion Yosef the famine continues forcing the brothers to turn to Egypt for food.  After interrogating the brothers, he learns about his father and Benjamin. Eventually Ya’akov reunites with  Yosef and meets his family.  When Egyptians can’t pay for food the entire nation of Egypt sells themselves to Yosef and Pharaoh.

The story has always bothered me from the educational and business perspective. The brothers bullied and abused Yosef.  No one deserves to be bullied even when the person is not acting kindly and respectfully.  I heard some advice that said one is more likely to get what you want if you act nicely and treat people with respect.  Yosef was arrogant and bragged about his dreams.  All had flaws in their relationships.  What could Yosef have done to teach the best ways to deal with bullies?

It had been many years since Yosef was sold into slavery.  I totally understand that the brothers didn’t recognize Yosef. Since the power was in the hands of Yosef and the brothers probably forgot the details of when they did wrong, bringing up detailed memories would not have taught the brothers anything.  The common advice of not showing emotion toward the bully, ignoring, or avoiding the bully would not have worked.  The brothers had a long time of separation from Yosef.  Yosef as the one with the power did not have to do anything to stand up for his rights.

Consider that the brothers were unhappy. They saw their father paying attention to Yosef.  After Yosef’s mother died, they didn’t show empathy or understanding.   Yosef didn’t really have to consider the brothers’ emotional well-being, sadness, or frustrations.

What punishments could Yosef have given they so that them would atone for the error of their ways? There were other indications of their bully behavior.  Appropriate restitution would have been to elicit an apology and elocution for their mistakes and work on ways to teach others how to cope with sadness and loneliness.

Yosef was confident and politically powerful and connected. Did he want to live the rest of his life without the family support of his brothers?  He needed to discuss with them ways they needed to stand together.

Discussion questions

  1. What should Yosef have done that would not have been hurtful?
  2. In the organization, how do you stop people from hurting each other?
  3. What sanctions would help the bully learn his/her lesson? Insolation is a sanction, but the brothers and Yosef were already apart for many years and his father thought he was dead. Monetary fines would be meaningless.
About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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