Vayechi: Seek to Understand

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude several stories: the story of Yaakov’s life, the story of the difficult relationship between Yosef and his brothers, and the story of Yosef himself, who dies at the very end of the book of Bereshit, making his surviving brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when they eventually leave. (Cf. Bereshit/ Genesis 50:24-26.)

Yet between the deaths of Yaakov and Yosef, there is a touching scene upon the return of the brothers from burying their father in the land of Israel: the brothers think that perhaps now, at last, Yosef will take revenge on them for their mistreatment of him decades earlier. He forgives them and reiterates his belief that God intended it for good, to bring him to power in Egypt in order to save the family. (Cf. 50:15-19.) The Torah begins this story with a detail that seems unnecessary at best :

When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him! ‘ ” (50:15)

Rashi asks the obvious question: what’s up with telling us that Yosef’s brothers “saw that their father was dead?” They had all just come back from a long journey to bury him! Not only that- but we already know they are Yosef’s brothers and not somebody else’s brothers, so that’s another extra word- unless it was merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.*

To which Rashi might say- if he were in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: corroborative fiddlestick!

Rather, Rashi understands verse 15 to be all of one piece: that is, the brothers saw the death of their father through Yosef, that is, Yosef’s actions. “Saw” in this reading is not a physical seeing, but understanding the significance of something. Rashi says that the brothers “saw” [ that is, fully understood the implications of ] Yaakov’s death when Yosef’s behavior changed, inasmuch as he would usually invite them to dine at his royal table, by way of honoring their father Yaakov. When their father died, Yosef didn’t invite them-  literally, “bring them close”- as he did before.

Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah’s phrasing offers us one answer as to why the brothers would suddenly fear that Yosef would take revenge on them, yet we might also say that if Yosef wanted to harm them, he had ample time and opportunity to do so without waiting till they all got home and settled. Thus, I think Rashi’s reading also illustrates another important principle: namely, we often have no idea what other people are thinking, and sometimes interpret their actions (a dinner invitation, or lack thereof) on the basis of our own fears, anxieties, guilt, or resentment. It seems to me that Yosef’s brothers are themselves revisiting their actions, and imagining that Yosef is feeling the same negative emotions that they are.

Taking this midrash at face value, we might further see this episode this as a sad miscommunication, with Yosef’s brothers unable to perceive his grief over their father’s death and misinterpreting his reticence as anger at them. Perhaps Yosef was confused as to how to proceed with his brothers, given his high status- maybe he was just as worried that they would resent him and their dependence upon him, as he was, after all, still one of the youngest brothers. People grieve in very different ways: some need time alone, some need time with others, some need to talk, some need to reflect privately, some need to get busy, some need to take quiet walks. Maybe Yosef didn’t invite his brothers to dinner because he didn’t know how to manage his different roles- as politician, father, brother, and grieving son- in the wake of Yaakov’s death.

Transitions are hard, and communicating with those around us at those times can be even harder. Rashi reminds us that it can be a peril to speculate too much about others; seeking to ask and understand without preconception can be a surer path to peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Click here if you don’t get the reference.

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