Joseph's brothers are in Egypt to get food to bring back to famine-ridden Canaan. Our parashah begins with the brothers standing before Joseph, vizier of Egypt, and Judah asking to be imprisoned in place of his youngest brother Benjamin (whom Joseph framed). Judah, who once convinced his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him, argues for Rachel's only other child because he fears that any harm to Benjamin would break his father's heart. Joseph dismisses all of the Egyptian attendants, releases a loud wail that the whole palace could hear(Genesis 45:2), and reveals his true identity to his brothers. The brothers are shocked into silence.
In the second aliyah, before his brothers speak, Joseph comforts them saying:
And now, don't be troubled, don't be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. (45:5)
This is not the reaction we would have expected from a man who had self-aggrandizing dreams as an adolescent and who had been left for dead by his siblings. Joseph has not only grown older, he has grown up. This reconciliation scene is rich with possibilities and can tell us much about the man Joseph has become. What motivates Joseph's behavior towards his brothers? Let's explore a few possibilities.
Don't be chagrined because you sold me here According to Leibowitz, Joseph reminds his brothers that they are culpable for the injustice he experienced and then, immediately after, reassures them. ( New Studies in Bereshit, 496) He reveals himself to his brothers by saying, I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt. (Genesis 45:4) He blames, and then he removes the blame. Perhaps it is precisely his position of power in contrast to his brothers' weakness that allows him to be so gracious and forgiving. It appears as if justice has already been served.
To save lives We can infer from this comment that Joseph, having foreseen and planned for the famine, thus saving the lives of an entire nation, is able to appreciate his role and the path that got him there. Many people look back on hard times from a place of achievement and claim to understand the reason they experienced challenges-precisely to enable them to reach the high point at which they find themselves. The commentator Rashi explains thatto save lives refers specifically to the lives of his family members. As Joseph goes on to say, God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:7) Joseph not only understands his trouble with his brothers as a necessary evil he had to pass through in order to do some good in the world; he also sees the challenge and the accomplishment as intimately related. His relationship with his brothers was damaged and painful. Now he is in the position to heal it. Joseph attributes this opportunity for t'shuvah (repentance) to God.
God sent me ahead of you Joseph sees God's hand in his fate and in the fate of his brothers. Indeed, this scene was predicted in Joseph's boyhood dreams before he was even sold into slavery. Although they seem to be guilty of selling Joseph into slavery, Joseph can attribute their actions to the hand of God in fulfillment of a higher purpose. The brothers were simply actors on God's stage, levers that had to be pulled in order for Joseph to reach his current position. Joseph is not looking into the faces of people who hated and envied him enough to try to kill him; he sees God's messengers. We can almost hear Joseph's inner wrestling as he addresses his brothers. He concludes, So, it's not you who sent me here, but…God.(Genesis 45:8) We each have a role to fulfill in a plan that is unknown to us, and we must accept that. The Rabbis termed this phenomenon hashgachah pratit, personal or private providence. God cares about me and intervenes in my life. It is a subject of enduring debate in Jewish thought, and it is likely that among the readers of this commentary there are divergent opinions on this issue. Such a diversity of thinking is healthy and valuable.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrestles with different ways of understanding God when faced with adversity in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People . The idea of God with which Kushner grew up (and no longer comforts him), is a just one, that of an "all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly parents did, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly. He would protect us from being hurt, or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life." ( When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 3) This view is a hard one for many of us to accept, particularly when we experience injustice. In Joseph's case, things seem to have come full circle. However, Joseph's response is still remarkable because he finds himself looking into the faces of the perpetrators of the injustice he suffered!
Ascribing to God the trajectory of his life enables Joseph to forgive his brothers, since they are agents of the divine. Who is responsible for his transformation? How can he make sense of the pain in his life? He is faced once again with the painful fact that his own brothers did not love him. Has he grown enough to accept some of the responsibility for the things that have happened to him in his life? There is no single answer to these questions that Joseph may have been asking himself. The brothers must also be unsure of their fate; they do not respond or approach Joseph throughout his entire speech, even after Joseph guaranteed that he will provide for them and all of their households. He kissed all his brothers and wept with them; only after this could his brothers respond to him. (Genesis 45:15)
Sometimes there are no words to make sense of pain. Ultimately, Joseph's choice is to take the opportunity to move forward with a renewed network of familial relationships. As he sends his brothers home loaded with goods to retrieve their father and their families, Joseph reveals that the pain caused by his brothers' hatred is sill extant as he warns them not to fight with one another: Don't be anxious along the way. (Genesis 45:24)
Perhaps when siblings fight and reconcile, God is in the forgiveness. Perhaps when one person reaches out her hand, God is helping that woman extend herself. Joseph chose the path of more love over more pain. His acceptance of God's direct intervention in his life brought Joseph comfort, and ultimately comforted his brothers as well. We can learn from Joseph's words and deeds that humility can be a sign of greatness, and a readiness to accept the presence of God in our lives can be a source of comfort and love.
- What do you think Joseph was thinking? Have you ever been able to forgive someone who seemingly hurt you intentionally? Why or why not?
- How does your understanding of God's role in your life help you to deal with pain and challenges? Does it help you to make sense of what has happened to you? Does it help you to choose how you will act in moving forward?
- Remember that Joseph's father Jacob also fought with is brother Esau and ultimately reconciled. Compare and contrast these sibling rivalries. What caused the fracture in the relationship? What allowed it to be healed? How are these sets of brothers similar to or different from the first brothers, Cain and Abel?
For further learning
B. Scott and B. Russell wrote a song entitled "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." Read the lyrics and discuss: What might Joseph have said about these words?
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280