As I write these words, I am painfully aware of the war that is taking place in the Gaza Strip and the physical and psychological pain that is being felt by Israelis within Gaza’s reach, Israelis throughout Israel, and among many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Though I have chosen not to make this my topic for Parashat Vay’chi, it does not escape me that this can be seen as “sibling rivalry” gone to such extremes that even our ancestor Joseph could not have imagined.
When a parent dies, even grown children may experience an emotional roller coaster. This is understandable, as the children feel bereft of the mother or father who nurtured them and their dreams throughout their lives. The children mourn the parent they loved and admired so much, who probably knew them most deeply, and who loved them unconditionally. Having lost both my parents when they and I were relatively young, I know this pain very well.
Part of the pain may not be so easily understood by outsiders when the death of a parent unleashes hidden secrets, buried feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, anger, or guilt among the siblings, or between the siblings and the parent. My sense is that there are few families who escape this kind of pain, because we are all human, with our faults and specific needs, and our own ways of forming relationships.
This is what struck me on reading Parashat Vay’chi this year. After Jacob’s death, the Torah records: When Joseph’s brothers saw (vayir’u) 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!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” (Genesis 50:15-17)
This is a surprising passage indeed. The Torah never tells us that Jacob knew anything about what his sons had done to Joseph. And we certainly do not have this “speech” of Jacob’s in our Torah text. Yet, we certainly understand why the brothers would have created such a “speech.”
Rashi, quoting Midrash B’reisheet Rabbah, and adding his own comments, is troubled by the phrase “when Joseph’s brothers saw.” Jacob had been dead for some time now, and they had all returned from burying him in Canaan. So Rashi asks:
“What does the text mean by ‘saw’? They perceived the effects of his death on Joseph. There were used to dining with Joseph, the latter keeping on close terms with them out of respect for his father. As soon as Jacob died, he ceased to be on close terms with them.”
This is one close reading of the words “they saw.” In another ancient commentary, another meaning is deduced:
“. . . What had [the brothers] seen? Said Rabbi Isaac: They saw Joseph, on his way back from burying his father, go and peer into the pit [into which they had cast him], though he had been inspired by the purest of motives. He [Joseph] said: How many wonders did the Almighty perform for me when He delivered me from this pit! But they, not knowing what had gone through his mind, said: It may be that Joseph will hate us….” (Mishnat R. Eliezer, Torah Shelemah)
Joseph’s brothers had committed a great crime against him many years ago; they had put him in a pit, intending to kill him, and then sold him into slavery. Though he had forgiven them, and brought them, their families, and their father down to live in the abundance of Egypt, this incident was never far from their minds. With their father gone, whom Joseph had loved and respected, they feared that this “secret” would show its ugly head again and Joseph would take revenge on them. Any action or inaction on the part of Joseph was seen as an indication that Joseph still bore a grudge against them.
Though Joseph had truly forgiven them, and matured greatly through the years, the death of their father had opened this wound afresh, as the deaths of parents often do. Joseph’s brothers did not have the perspective that Joseph had developed. He had come to understand that everything he had gone through had been God’s plan from the beginning – including his being sold to the Egyptians – so that he could sustain his family (and the Egyptians) in the terrible time of famine. As the end of verse 17 in our parashah says: “Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.”
We can take a number of lessons from this episode. The first is, when we make a decision that will impact our children or our siblings (even a “minor” decision), we need to think twice and three times about how it will affect them – at that time and into the future. Our human feelings are very sensitive, especially when it comes to our families. Some things are minor and will be forgotten within weeks. Others may last a lifetime. I’m sure none of us would put Jacob up for “the best parent of the year” award, nor would we give a prize to Joseph’s brothers for being the “most loving siblings.” But we can learn from their mistakes.
Second, when it comes to the difficult time of burying a parent, we should try not to second-guess our siblings, and try to be as mature and sensitive as we can when secrets or deeply held emotions come to light. Obviously there are exceptions when we know a sibling has physical or psychological problems. In general, we should try to understand when the anger, guilt, or jealousy flares up, and discuss it in as rational and as sensitive a way as possible. And if we can’t, we should seek outside help.
Lastly, we should consciously realize what a gift our families are to us. For the most part, they are the ones who nurture us, comfort us when we are in pain, know us for the longest time, and share sweet memories with us. We learn how to live from them (yes, even from the annoying teasing that we give and take from our siblings) and most of the time, they will be there in an instant if they know we need them. When they are gone, they are gone from this Earth. So we need to love and cherish them while we are all together.