From Pain to Peace

Vayehi By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 20, 2012 / 5773

The response of Joseph’s brothers in the aftermath of Jacob’s death is dramatic: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did him!’” (Gen. 50:15). The brothers fear and surmise that Joseph will now exact vengeance for their misdeeds. Despite Joseph’s seeming forgiveness and admission that it was God who orchestrated the events that brought him down to save Egypt and his family, they remain stuck in the past. One cannot begrudge their feeling of radical insecurity. Perhaps this is indeed an et ratzon, an auspicious moment for payback. However, what is Joseph’s moving response? First he cries, and then, Torah goes on to teach, “vayinahem otam vayidaber al libam” (he comforted them and spoke to their hearts). How does Joseph’s reaction reflect both on his brothers and on the development of his own character?

Rashi, the prolific medieval exegete, comments, “devarim hamitkablim al halev” (he spoke words that found ready access to their hearts). In Joseph’s thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and creativity, he realizes that he has to set a new course, create a new agenda, and now find a compelling way to connect to the heart of his brothers. With the loss of his father, Joseph sees that he is both in a position of power and in a situation where comfort and reassurance are needed. He senses the fear of his brothers and responds with overwhelming emotion and compassion.

First, Joseph is clearly pained by their reaction. Our protagonist’s tears are testament to his shock. The fact that his brothers remain fearful speaks to an open wound in the family. He realizes fully there is still much emotional work to be done. Second, he makes clear that real power sits solely in the hands of God. Even if he desired to exact punishment on his brothers, it is not his decision to make. As powerful as he appears to be, Joseph communicates the message that God is far more powerful and that He is the ultimate Judge and Decisor. Third, Joseph makes clear that his tale of suffering brought about the saving of many people. Were it not for his painful journey, the nation of Egypt and, indeed, the entire Near East would have been devastated by famine. Joseph brings life. Finally, Joseph gives a personal assurance that he will take care of his family—his brothers and their children. With his remarkable and touching response, Joseph is a model to us all of looking past pain and doing everything one can to make familial peace.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.