Parshat Vayehi – The end of the brotherhood stories

The Torah describes it thus: “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.’

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion is the last in the Book of Genesis. The last part of the book focuses on the complicated relationship between Joseph and his brothers that reaches its terrible low point when they sell him into slavery. Then it reaches a high note when Joseph, serving as a deputy to the king of Egypt, confesses his identity to his brothers and speaks to them in calming and forgiving tones: “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.” (Gen. 45:5) After that, Jacob and his family go down to Egypt and live there for 17 years. Then Jacob dies, and here we get to the part that reveals that under the surface, this story is far from over. We, the innocent readers, were sure that the sense of brotherhood and peace had been restored between Joseph and his brothers.
But apparently we were naïve. The section with which this portion and the Book of Genesis end reveals the tension that remained between Joseph and his brothers over the previous 17 years, and on the other hand, reveals Joseph’s humane-moral heroism.
The Torah describes it thus: “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.”’... His brothers also went and fell before him, and they said, ‘Behold, we are your slaves.’” (Gen.
50:15-18) If we wanted to believe that the tension between Joseph and his brothers was resolved 17 years beforehand, we now discover that it was only a temporary respite. The brothers are sure that now that their father has died, Joseph will cruelly take revenge on them for their terrible act of selling him into slavery.
And one detail teaches us about the terrible tension that motivates them: Jacob did not even know about the sale of Joseph, and surely did not command Joseph to forgive his brothers! The distress caused the brothers to fabricate a will that never existed. And this brings us to Joseph’s reaction, which is typical of the Joseph we have come to know over the last few weeks.
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.’ And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.” (Gen. 50:19-21) The brothers had lived the last 17 years under constant stress over what Joseph would do when their father dies. This discovery saddens him and brings him to tears. Not only were we, the readers, naïve, but so was Joseph, who believed this whole story was behind him. And here, 17 years later, he discovers that nothing much has changed and that the brothers still live in fear of his revenge.
Despite this, Joseph maintains his moral stance. He is sure that the brothers’ scheme was only a tool for God’s plans. The brothers thought badly, but God used it for good. This is what Joseph believed 17 years ago and what he continued to believe even after he found out the brothers did not trust what he said.
And furthermore, there is a sentence here that is difficult to accept: “And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.” Joseph felt that the brothers had never trusted the things he had said to them, and therefore he understands that he cannot suffice with declarations, but offers calming words of comfort. And he makes a huge attempt to calm his brothers.
This is how the Book of Genesis, which is composed mostly of relationships between siblings, ends. It begins with Cain murdering Abel; continues with the complicated relationship between Abraham and his nephew Lot; Ishmael who is banished in order to distance him from Isaac; Jacob who deceptively gets his father’s blessings in lieu of Esau; the complicated relationships between Rachel and Leah in the house of Jacob; and up to Manasseh and Ephraim, with the younger getting the blessing of the older. This entire book deals with family relationships to teach us about the complexities and significance of brotherhood.
Indeed, there are no more appropriate words than those of Joseph with which to finish the Book of Genesis and transition to the Book of Exodus, where we will read the great story of the creation of the Nation of Israel, the Exodus from Egypt, and Ma’amad Har Sinai (the revelation at Mount Sinai) where we received the Torah.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.