Parashat Vayechi: Graciousness and honesty

Gracious people have been humbled by life and grasp the vulnerability of the human spirit.

Forgiveness is something you do for yourself (photo credit: TNS)
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself
(photo credit: TNS)

One of the most important and underrated traits of leadership is graciousness.

Gracious people have been humbled by life and grasp the vulnerability of the human spirit. As life has exposed their own weaknesses, gracious people are more kind and considerate to others. They aren’t judgmental but accepting. They share their spirit freely with those in need.

This generosity of spirit allows them to easily forgive. The strongest indicator of graciousness is forgiveness toward others.

We would expect graciousness from Joseph. He has been consistently humbled by life, and at this stage he appreciates how fragile human experience can be. Expecting this graciousness, we assume that he would amiably accept his brothers’ apologies.

After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers hesitantly approach him, nervous that he will avenge their grievous crimes. No longer restrained by an aging father, Joseph is now free to retaliate for their past felony.

 Rembrandt - Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Rembrandt - Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The brothers are so terrified of possible reprisal that they even lie about their deceased father’s wishes. Putting words into Jacob’s mouth, they claim that their father had instructed Joseph against any possible revenge.

Presumably, Joseph easily detects this transparent lie; had Jacob actually interfered in this messy situation, he would have spoken directly with Joseph. This weak attempt at a lie merely demonstrates how desperate the anxious brothers are.

Here is Joseph’s grand opportunity to rise above pettiness and vengeance and graciously forgive his brothers and embrace them. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose. The entire world beckons to his whim. His position in Egypt is secure. He is clearly the new patriarch of the family. This should be an easy decision.

Strangely, he doesn’t warmly embrace his brothers, nor does he courteously accept their apology.

Initially, he responds in a manner that is part reassuring and part threatening: “Am I in place of God?”

On the one hand, this phrase implies that he will not take matters into his own hands, and he will not play the role of God. This certainly comforts his brothers.

However, this phrase also implies that Joseph does possess the authority to mete out justice and punish their misdeeds. A more polite acceptance of their apology would not include offhanded references to his own authority – even the type of authority he doesn’t plan on wielding. The acceptance of an apology should not even allude to the potential of retribution.

Joseph’s next comments are even more perplexing: he reminds them of their malicious intentions: God has converted your cruelty into a favorable outcome, allowing me to support the entire world.

This second line accentuates their crime while highlighting Joseph’s phenomenal success. This is not the textbook way to graciously accept an apology. We would expect humility, welcoming language, and attempts to play down the insult. We would expect Joseph to minimize the crime rather than emphasize the pain.

Given how desperate the brothers are, Joseph’s disguised comments seem insensitive. Ultimately, he does assure them that he will continue to care for them, and the scene ends with Joseph consoling his fearful brothers. However, Joseph’s initial response to their heartfelt apology doesn’t feel gracious.

EVIDENTLY, AS important as graciousness may be, it isn’t the only value and isn’t the sole consideration when accepting an apology. Evidently, frank and candid communication is also valuable, and Joseph doesn’t withhold his true feelings merely to be tactful and sensitive. A full embrace of his brother’s apology is definitely more sensitive in the short term, but may be disadvantageous in the long term. Whitewashing the crime may not be the best approach.

Apologies aren’t just an opportunity to express regret; they should also enable catharsis. People of moral conscience are weighted down by guilt and remorse. Without facing our guilt and rinsing our conscience, we can become emotionally overwhelmed. Apologies help us confront our misdeeds and move on from otherwise unbearable guilt.

Earlier in the story, as they stood accused by Joseph masquerading as an Egyptian king, the brothers already begun to trace their predicament to their horrific crime of kidnapping.

This vital process of facing their guilt and “moving on” can be completed only if they fully appreciate the suffering they inflicted upon Joseph. Lost in all the excitement of discovering Joseph and relocating to Egypt is the incredible suffering they caused. Thorough catharsis demands confronting the full impact of their conspiracy.

Joseph is happy to accept their apology, but his candor also affords them an opportunity to process their sin. If their guilt remains unaddressed, it will fester and create continued anxiety and emotional unrest. As much as they seek Joseph’s graciousness, they also deeply need his honesty.

In addition to aiding their catharsis, Joseph’s honesty is an initial step toward rebuilding their deeply fractured relationship. The trauma of his kidnapping, as well as their living apart for 20 years, has ruptured communication between the brothers. Communication builds trust, and trust is the foundation of healthy relationships.

It is heartbreaking, but not surprising, to see how distrustful the brothers have become. The midrash narrates a sorrowful story: After burying Jacob, Joseph returned to Shechem to revisit “the pit” and the scene of his abduction. Perhaps he wanted closure for his own trauma. To no one’s surprise, this innocent personal trip alarmed the brothers. Perhaps, they worried, Joseph was still angry, and had returned to the scene of the crime to plot his revenge.

Direct communication could easily have alleviated any suspicions, but sadly it doesn’t exist. Innocent personal decisions stoke treacherous conspiracy theories. Where there is no trust, there is no relationship.

The first step toward rebuilding this relationship is honest and hard communication. It is imperative for Joseph to relay his insult. As we would say, he must get everything off his chest. Until he does, the anxious brothers will always wonder what deeper feelings he is harboring, and trust will never develop.

A gracious acceptance of their apology without articulating the deep hurt would leave many unanswered questions and would not build bridges of communication. For the wound to heal, Joseph must rip off the band-aid. It may be painful, but this is the only way the wounds can begin to heal.

The scene ends with Joseph “speaking to their hearts” (vayedaber al libam), as the lines of communication have been restored. Trust can now be rebuilt and the relationship rehabilitated.

Life is complex and places us into complicated interpersonal situations. Graciousness demands that we exhibit mercy, humility and generosity of spirit toward those who insult or harm us. Yet sometimes, along with our graciousness, we do better by also sharing our honesty and our authentic feelings, rather than concealing our hurt with cordiality and geniality.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.