Would Yosef Take Revenge?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, VaYechi, completes the dramatic account of Yosef and his brothers and concludes the first Book of the Torah, Bereishit. A significant focus of this Sedra is the last days of the third Patriarch, Yaakov Avinu. He had a very turbulent life in which he had to confront adversaries from within and without.

It is interesting to note that by disposition he was a “pure soul who dwelled in tents.” This is a reference to the halls of study, where he spent all of his time immersed in the advanced areas of Judaism. He would have been happy to devote his entire life to the knowledge and teaching of Hashem and His Revelation that is contained in our Mesorah (transmitted teachings). But circumstances drew Yaakov out of the Beit Midrash (House of Learning) and into the arena of practical matters, where the going was not always so smooth.

The turmoil persisted even after he returned to Canaan, where he sought to raise his children. The rifts that developed among the siblings tore the family apart, but were mended largely due to the compassionate spirit of Yosef and his great reverence for his father.

Yosef was solicitous of the needs of the family and of their abundant herds of livestock. He determined, when there were five years left to the famine, that to procure proper supplies the family would have to take up residence in the land of Egypt.

The Chumash does not tell us why this was so; but I surmise that it was because at a time of severe famine when the native citizens are barely getting enough foodstuffs, it would be extremely unpopular for the Ruler to dispense provisions to strangers in faraway lands. Thus, Yosef advised that if they wanted food, they would have to relocate–at least for the duration of the famine. This way they would survive the catastrophe. What then? They would have to make a further decision when agricultural factors were back to normal.

The Jews did not pick up and return to Canaan when the famine was over, and again the Torah does not reveal why. It is reasonable to say that Hashem’s reassurances to Yaakov not to fear going down to Egypt because “… I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall surely bring you up; and Yosef shall place his hand on your eyes” (Bereishit 46:3-4) provided the rationale for remaining in this foreign land.

In addition, perhaps they felt that to abandon the country that had sustained them in bad times as soon as things got better would be resented by the local populace. People do not like to feel that they are being used or unappreciated for the good that they do. Therefore, the family decided to remain in Egypt at least “for the time being”; but as we know that developed into a very long interval.

The major event which occurs in our Parsha is the death of our third Patriarch, Yaakov. His passing was greeted by the greatest and most sustained outpouring of grief imaginable, as all of Egypt mourned him for many days. After that, Yosef requested permission to accompany his father’s body for interment in Canaan, and it was granted. A delegation of Egyptians accompanied the procession, and finally Yaakov was buried with his Fathers and Mothers in the Cave of Machpeila. The great era of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs had come to an end.

True to his word, Yosef and his family returned to their homes in Egypt. Then something very strange occurred. The brothers approached Yosef with a plea, that he not take revenge against them for what they had done to him. To bolster their position, they “revealed” that before dying, Yaakov had asked that his own personal appeal, not to retaliate against his siblings, be conveyed to Yosef, in his name.

Yosef was flabbergasted by this whole development, as he had done everything to be kind to his brothers from the time they had reconciled seventeen years earlier. It pained him to believe that the family would feel that they had to be afraid of him, and he tried again to convince them that they had no reason for any concern. But the question arises, what was it that suddenly triggered a fear of retribution after all these years of mutual peace? How could they imagine that Yosef would suddenly turn into an avenging enemy?

Because of this problem, the Meforshim (Commentators) have surmised that there was a sudden change in Yosef’s behavior which aroused trepidation. Rashi famously says, that after Yaakov’s death, Yosef ceased his habit of hosting the family for happy get-together sessions. The brothers interpreted this to mean that he had only done so to fulfill Kibbud Av (honoring parents) but now that Yaakov was gone, he had no further incentive to socialize with them. They took this as an indication that he hated them and would be in pursuit of “evening the score.”

But why, in fact, did Yosef suddenly keep apart from his brothers? Many people are troubled by Yosef’s apparent disinclination to spend time with his relatives, and the matter requires elucidation. It is well understood that the brothers had acted cruelly against their younger sibling, but Yosef had made it clear that he forgave them and harbored no resentments. So why did he keep his distance after the death of Yaakov?

In my opinion, it is the view of Judaism that a person has the exclusive right to choose his friends. This means that no one can demand that some other person be his “buddy”, spend time and do the things with him, that constitute meaningful friendship. Of course, one must treat all people decently, but he is free to “hang out” with those whose company he enjoys. Friendship by definition is a relationship which both parties must enter into voluntarily, by free choice.

This is the background from which we need to understand Yosef’s relationship with his siblings. They were older than him, and as a youngster he had been close with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. He was only seventeen when he was sold as a slave to Egypt. That is the place where he spent the bulk of his years, and all of his significant relationships were with various Egyptians.

In my opinion, Yosef never formed any close friendships with his brothers even after the reconciliation. They did not live in the same place, and he was preoccupied with his leadership responsibilities. It is true that he managed to bring the family together on certain occasions, but that was done primarily for the sake of Yaakov. Once his father was gone, there was no motivation for Yosef to continue these gatherings, and he fell out of the practice. From the standpoint of Yosef, no hostility was intended. However, from the vulnerable position of the brothers, things looked entirely different.

The Rabbis assert that in conveying this “message” to Yosef the brothers were lying, because Yaakov had commanded no such thing. Rashi explains that this is because Yaakov would never have suspected that Yosef could take revenge. Yaakov knew and understood his most precious son and recognized the sublime moral level that he was on.

But that was not true of the brothers. As the verse attests (in describing how the brothers recognized Yosef when they spotted him in the distance on that fateful day in Dotan) “And they saw him from afar” (Bereishit 37:18). Tellingly, they never got a “close up” look at their brother. Because the brothers never really discovered the true greatness of Yosef, they ascribed to him vengeful motives, which he simply did not have.

But this lack of insight cost them a great deal more damage than they realized. Yosef had inherited all of the advanced Torah of Yaakov which he had received from his father and grandfather, as well as his studies in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. The learning and wisdom of the brothers could have been substantially increased had they recognized Yosef for what he was and solicited him to be their teacher. That was the real loss that the brothers suffered when they rejected Yaakov’s assessment of Yosef and judged him in accordance with their envious emotions.

This tragedy has afflicted us through the ages. We are divided into many religious groupings, which tend to have a certain suspiciousness about each other’s theological legitimacy. As a result, we often miss out on the positive insights that can be gleaned from the teachings of the groups that we are not affiliated with. Many Talmudic students and scholars refrained from attending Rabbi Soloveitchik’s public discourses because they did not approve of certain of his philosophical positions. So they deprived themselves of the precious Torah teachings they could have received from that incomparable luminary.

We are all familiar with the famous paragraph in the Passover Hagada which states: “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya and Rabbi Akiva were reclining in Bnei Brak and were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all night long until their students came and said to them, ‘Our teachers, the time to recite the morning Shema has arrived.’”

These were among the greatest sages of Jewish history, and they all recognized one another and humbly sought to learn whatever they could from their illustrious colleagues. Such a display of respect and unity among our great sages is a true blessing which can inspire all of Klal Yisrael. May we merit to witness, be uplifted and inspired by it.

Shabbat Shalom.