Vayigash – Punishment for Forgiveness

Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, assuring them that he harbors no grudge or resentment against them. Nevertheless, his brothers are unable to completely trust him for the rest of their lives. They carry their guilt with them to the end, and assume that Yosef carries some degree of hurt with him as well. The relationship between them is forever tainted. This was not what Yosef wanted or intended. He had hoped that all of the past would be water under the bridge in the realization that everything had been orchestrated by Divine Providence.

How indeed could Yosef have held no resentment in his heart against his brothers. He had barely escaped with his life after Yehudah suggested that they sell him and gain some profit rather than allow him to die in the pit. The years of his suffering in Egypt, languishing in prison for 12 years before ascending to power, could not be easily forgotten or dismissed. How do we understand this strange and unusual benevolence in Yosef? “Your thoughts were to harm me, but G-d’s thoughts were for the ultimate good,” is Yosef’s explanation to his brothers. And with that Yosef closes the book on any hard feelings.

One way to attempt to understand this is by reviewing the intents of Yosef’s brothers from the beginning. Sure, they disliked him and resented their father’s favor toward him above all his brothers. They further resented his dreams which reflected Yosef’s superiority over them. But they were not murderers; the sons of Jacob would not commit fratricide because of jealousy.

The Or HaChaim comments on the passage of his brothers’ plan to kill Yosef, explaining that Yosef’s brothers held a court session and concluded that Yosef was liable for death due to his slander of them to their father for capital crimes. They felt it was a legitimate sentence and they carried it out from a sense of duty. There was likely a sense of relief in ridding themselves of what they considered a thorn in their side, but they were not mafiosos taking out someone just because they didn’t like the way he looked at them.

This explanation becomes more compelling when we read of the brothers’ reaction to his harsh treatment of them before they knew his identity. Last week we read that two of the brothers spoke to one another, attributing the circumstances to their guilt for not responding with compassion to the pleas of Yosef when he had pleaded with them for mercy. (Genesis 42:21) This statement caused Yosef to be overcome with emotion and he had to turn aside to weep. It is notable that the brothers did not express remorse for their actions or their decision to sentence him, only for their lack of brotherly compassion, refusing to be moved by his pleas. This supports the idea that their decision at the time was legitimate. And Yosef understood that and accepted it without resentment. Further, Yosef understood that everything had been divinely orchestrated, setting up the chessboard for G-d’s great plan of supporting the Israelites during the famine. Looking at this from an even broader perspective, this was just a small piece of G-d’s plan in fulfilling His word to Abraham, “You shall surely know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will be enslaved and oppressed…”

In the end it was not Yosef but his brothers who perpetuated the strain in the relationship. We see no indication of further communication between them during the years in Egypt. It wasn’t a lack in forgiveness but a lack of belief in forgiveness. After the death of their father and the funeral which takes place in next week’s reading the brothers further reflect their lack of trust in Yosef’s forgiveness. His brothers related to Yosef their father’s command to him: “Say to Yosef, please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil.” (Genesis 50:17) Yosef wept when they spoke thus to him. It is not unlikely that his weeping stemmed from the pain that his brothers could not accept that he forgave them. It takes two sides to make peace, two parties to develop trust. Yosef’s brothers were unable to trust.

Friction occurs everywhere, all the time. Feelings are hurt and feathers are ruffled constantly. Forgiveness also happens regularly. More often than not, in my experience, it is the offending side that perpetuates the strain in a relationship because of their feelings of guilt and assumption that beneath the surface there are still hard feelings harbored by the other party. It is a wonderful thing to forgive, and a great Torah value as well. But it is sometimes more difficult to accept forgiveness than it is to give it.

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