Parashat Vayehi: Blame or gratitude? A message from Joseph

What would happen between Joseph and his brothers, now that their father was gone? We, as readers, sense an imminent drama in the story.

 ‘Joseph’s Brothers Throw Him into the Pit,’ Brussels 1490-1500. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Joseph’s Brothers Throw Him into the Pit,’ Brussels 1490-1500.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The last parasha in the Book of Genesis, Vayehi, completes two series of stories: the life story of Jacob our patriarch and that of his son Joseph.

In this parasha, we read about Jacob parting from his sons, the blessings and guidance he gives them before his death, and his burial in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. We read about the relationship between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, and finally about Joseph’s death.

Joseph’s relationship with his brothers was tense since their younger years as a result of Joseph being favored by Jacob, and as a result of the dreams Joseph shared with his brothers, in which he envisioned himself as the leader of the family – something that actually ultimately occurred.

The jealous brothers sold Joseph to Arab tradesmen, who then sold him into slavery in Egypt. There, after dramatic twists and turns that included landing in jail due to a libelous story, Joseph rose to greatness, became a viceroy, and ran Egypt’s economy. After many years, the family reunited when Jacob and all his sons went down to Egypt from Canaan and settled there.

Seventeen years after going down to Egypt, Jacob died. Beforehand, he asked his sons not to bury him in Egypt but to carry him to Canaan and bury him in the Tomb of the Patriarchs alongside his parents and his wife Leah. The sons kept their promise to him, and along with an Egyptian delegation that included “chariots and horsemen” and a “very numerous” camp, Jacob was buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs as he had requested.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

But what would happen between Joseph and his brothers, now that their father was gone? We, as readers, sense an imminent drama in the story. There was enough foreshadowing until now to prepare us for it. And, indeed, the Torah tells us as follows:

“And Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. Now Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.’ So they commanded [messengers to go] to Joseph, to say, ‘Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying, “So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you.’” Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father’” (Gen. 50:14-17).

The sages of the midrash explain that what the brothers said to Joseph was not truthful. Jacob did not know of the sale of Joseph until the day he died and could not have instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. But the brothers’ despair was great after Jacob’s death, and they were very worried about Joseph taking revenge, so they made up the story to protect themselves.

WHY WERE the brothers afraid of Joseph? The midrash tells us that after Jacob was buried, Joseph did not hurry back to Egypt from Hebron. He journeyed to the north of Canaan, to Dotan, to the site where his brothers had thrown him into a pit before selling him. He wanted to see that pit before returning to Egypt. The brothers inferred from this that Joseph was reverting to that period when the tension between them was high, leading to the terrible act of throwing him into a pit and selling him. This made them fear what was to come.

But why did Joseph go to see that pit?

Our sages tell us the following:

Joseph went to make a blessing over that pit where his brothers had thrown him. As a person should do over a place where a miracle was done for him, he said: “Blessed be God, who made me a miracle in this place!” (Tanhuma on Vayehi)

Joseph went to the pit to remember the miracle that happened to him when he wasn’t left in the pit to die. The brothers interpreted his action as reason for revenge, but Joseph was focused on gratitude to God for His graces and wanted to express gratitude for the miracle.

Remembering the miracle and gratitude to God for every event in his life were cornerstones of Joseph’s life. In light of this, we are not surprised to read Joseph’s answer to his brothers:

“Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good!” (Gen. 50:20)

“Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good!”

Genesis 50:20

This is how the cycle of Joseph stories ends, with a message from Joseph that echoed throughout his life: Instead of focusing on accusing others, we should focus on gratitude to God. A life of gratitude rather than of blame leads to forgiveness and making peace with others and will ultimately repair any relationship and make it a happy one.■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.