Vayechi: Still Searching for his Brothers

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

Let our learning this week be dedicated to the memory of Bill
Wallen, whose recent and tragic passing has left the North Shore
Jewish community bereft of one who loved the Torah and the Jewish
people. May his memory be a blessing.

This week we conclude the Book of Bereshit (Genesis). The Torah
portion, Vayechi, brings back Yaakov as a major character, now that
he and his family have been reunited under Yosef’s care in Egypt.
Yaakov blesses his children and grandchildren before he dies, and
makes Yosef promise to bring him back to the Land of Israel to be
buried. Yosef does so, but shortly after he returns from this solemn
mission, old frictions bubble up again. Yosef’s brothers, still
fearing that he wants to take revenge for selling him into slavery
so many years before, send him a message, telling him that their
father Yaakov wanted only forgiveness between his sons after his
death. The brothers were so afraid of Yosef’s power as Prime
Minister that they didn’t even approach him directly, but instead
sent him a message via a third party.

This plea for forgiveness affects Yosef powerfully; the Torah tells
us that he weeps openly as it is being read. (Bereshit 50:17)
Hearing this, the brothers go directly to him, where he tells them:

“Have no fear! Am I in God’s place? Although you intended me
harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about this result, the survival of many
people till this day. So don’t be afraid- I will sustain you and
your children.” (50:18-20)

A couple of things are interesting about this part of the story.
First, the Torah never tells us that Yaakov actually did sent a
posthumous message to Yosef, asking him to forgive his brothers- if
they were lying, perhaps it was acceptable for the sake of bringing
about peace within the family. Or, more simply, they thought this is
what their father <would> have wanted.

Secondly, notice how Yosef reacts to his brother’s suspicion of
him- he weeps openly at the mere mention of it. Is this because he
realizes that as Prime Minister, he can never be “one of the
guys,” a regular member of the family, which seems to have been his desire
since he was a young man? Or it because he realizes that his
brothers have good reason to fear him, and that he’s never fully
convinced them (or perhaps himself) of his forgiveness? After all,
the family has been living together in Egypt for 17 years; perhaps
Yosef realizes that those years in which he thought he had achieved
reconciliation did not bring the full closeness with his brothers
that he seems to have hoped for when he first reveals himself.

It was pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week (by Nikki
Greenspan), a student at the Conservative Yeshiva here in Jerusalem)
that Yosef does not cry or display much emotion when he is first
betrayed by his brothers, nor even when he’s thrown into prison
by Pharoah. He only regains his emotions later in life, perhaps because
he’s able to feel more acutely the loss of relationship that has
happened between himself and his brothers, and the subsequent joy in
regaining it. Yet evidently, even years after he reveals that the
Prime Minister of Egypt is the brother they sold into slavery,
evidently Yosef has not totally “found his brothers,” to
hearken back to the image of when he was first separated from them.

Perhaps we can learn from this the painful lesson that trust
regained may be more fragile that trust never broken. I think of
this especially as I sit in the Conservative Yeshiva, just a
kilometer from Arab East Jerusalem; even if a peace agreement were
signed and approved tomorrow, it might be many years before all the
suspicions between the Jews and the Arabs were healed. In the United
States, our leaders- were they capable of such things- might well
weep like Yosef to think of how deeply divided our society is, with
such burning mistrust between different groups and constituencies,
and their own responsibility for deepening these divisions.

Closer to home, we can only strive for Yosef’s path to forgiving
our friend and neighbor, by placing our trust in a loving God who lets
us find wisdom and meaning in our troubles; this does not excuse the
terrible choices that people make, but allows us to turn those
choices from the bad to the good, as Yosef points out. At the end of
the Book of Genesis, with so many troubled sets of brothers –
Cain and Abel, Noah’s sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav-
these brothers have finally learned that it’s a constant challenge of
self- reflection to live at peace with each other. We search ourselves for
the wisdom to live with others, and pray for the humility to forgive-
that’s the model of human kindness with which Bereshit concludes.

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