The dynamic between Joseph and his brothers is perplexing and fascinating. While Joseph apparently had a good rapport with some of his half brothers, the sons of the maids, he never got along with the six sons of Leah. The hostility escalated, leading eventually to Joseph’s imprisonment in the pit and his subsequent sale as a slave. Now the tables were turned. Joseph was no longer weak and alone. He commanded a position of power, and his brothers were now in a vulnerable position. Their purchases of food spiraled into a disaster, with Joseph’s silver goblet “discovered” in Benjamin’s packs. They stood before Joseph, despairing as their father’s fear for Benjamin’s safety was quickly turning prophetic.
From Joseph’s perspective everything was going according to plan. He had orchestrated this, planning for it as carefully as the director of a blockbuster film. His brothers were at his mercy now, with Benjamin’s life at stake. Joseph’s dreams had all but been fulfilled. But this was more complex than a simple fulfillment of those dreams. More than two decades earlier Joseph was at the mercy of his brothers. They were jealous of the favour with which Jacob treated Joseph. They were resentful of his haughty ways, as they interpreted Joseph’s actions and attitudes. They colluded to bring Joseph down, resulting in Joseph’s descent to Egypt and estrangement from the family. The sons of Leah had crushed the son of Rachel. Now Joseph was going to recreate this tension, putting Benjamin in the place Joseph had previously occupied, showing favour to Benjamin and sowing jealousy in the hearts of the brothers. Would Benjamin end up like Joseph, a slave in Egypt? Would his brothers again push Rachel’s son under the bus, or would they now stand up for him? Did they mature in the years that passed?
Joseph was seeking to forgive his brothers, but how does one forgive such a betrayal? How could he move past the horrific treatment Joseph was subjected to at his brothers’ hands? Earlier, when they were accosted by Joseph on their first trip to Egypt, accused of spying, the brothers had expressed their guilt for the sale of Joseph. “And they said, man to his brother, surely we are guilty over our brother, when we saw his anguish and we ignored his please, therefore this trouble has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)
Joseph was sorely tempted to end the saga then and there. His brothers recognized their earlier actions as erroneous and they expressed remorse – two critical steps of repentance. Joseph was overcome with emotion and had to weep out of his brothers’ sight and collect himself. But Joseph had to follow through, he had to test their sincerity. The Rambam has strict standards for repentance. One cannot simply say sorry and move on. One must change to the point that one would not repeat the sin if tempted again. Joseph was putting their resolve on the line, creating a similar circumstance where Rachel’s son was being favoured. Judah, the same son of Leah who had earlier instigated the sale of Joseph, now stood up to save the son of Rachel, offering himself in Benjamin’s stead. The repentance was complete. The brothers, in similar circumstances to their first crime, now acted differently, protecting their brother in an impressive display of loyalty, without any resentment or jealousy. Now Joseph could openly forgive.
How was it possible for Joseph to forgive his brothers for their grievous crime against him? What kind of mental strength did Joseph draw upon to be so benevolent to his brothers? Dr. David Pelcovitz, a well known psychologist in NY, explains that Joseph had the ability to see the positive that emerged from his tortured life. Even as he revealed his identity to his brothers he promoted a positive narrative of his suffering, pointing to the good that came out of this, enabling Joseph to provide sustenance for the family at this time of need. “It was God’s plan all along,” Joseph asserted.
Joseph had developed a positive perception of his destiny. This wasn’t always the way Joseph related to his plight. A shift occurred at a particular time, changing the way Joseph viewed his ordeals. When his first child was born Joseph named him Menashe, which connotes loss and forgetfulness. Joseph gave him this name because he felt bereft from the house of his father. But there was a switch that happened between Menashe’s birth and the birth of Joseph’s second son. The name Ephraim expressed Joseph’s recognition of the positive and fruitful tools God had given him despite the hardships. Joseph now came to realize the fulfillment of his destiny, and he understood that the hardships were all building blocks to reach this destiny. When we are able to view the positive outcomes of a hurtful event we are better able to forgive those who put us in such circumstances.
Joseph’s optimistic outlook again appears when he and his brothers carried Jacob’s casket up to the cave where his fathers were buried. The Midrash relates that Joseph took a detour, visiting the pit where the whole saga had started, that pit he had languished in until he was pulled out by the merchant slave-dealers. No doubt this was disconcerting to his brothers, who feared that Joseph was reminding himself of what they had done to him, preparing to take revenge now that Jacob was dead. But this was not Joseph’s intent at all. The Midrash explains that Joseph wished to recite a blessing at that location, thanking God for his miraculous survival of that ordeal. Once again, Joseph saw the positive, eager to give thanks rather than lock himself in negative thoughts.
The Maggid of Dubno expresses this idea through a parable. A king wore a crown, and embedded in the crown was a jewel, the largest and most precious in the kingdom. The king took great pride in this jewel, and found joy in gazing upon it every day. One morning the king noticed a flaw running down the center of the jewel and he was devastated. He immediately sent notice throughout the land, promising great reward to the one who could repair his Jewel. Word spread and all the finest artisans came to examine this jewel but none could guarantee its repair. One day a simple smith showed up to offer his services. He took out a set of small tools and began to chisel at the jewel, turning the flaw into a vine, out of which grew tiny leaves. The jewel was now even more beautiful than before.
The smith succeeded because he did not look at the crack as a flaw. He was able to find the positive, transforming the loss into a gain. When we look at challenges as opportunities, when we can see cracks as new shapes and directions, we are much better equipped to move forward and carry on with success. It is commonly understood that Joseph’s title of Tzadik, Joseph the righteous, was earned through his resistance of the advances of the mistress of his house. The Midrash, however, offers a very different reason. Joseph the Righteous earned his title because of his ability to turn things around, to shift his perception from negative to positive. A true Tzadik, Joseph overcame the natural resentment and came to forgive those who had done him so much harm.
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