Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
Parshat Vayigash features a description of the difficult encounter between Joseph and his brothers, after a 22-year period of estrangement and physical separation. As the second most powerful leader in Egypt, Joseph accuses his brothers of espionage, and forces them to return with their little brother, Benjamin. After lengthy attempts to persuade Jacob to let Benjamin join his brothers on their long journey, Jacob acquiesces. They return to Egypt for another audience with Joseph, join him at a banquet, and finally set out back home, but their plans change when Joseph “discovers” a goblet he had slipped into Benjamin’s bag.
Seemingly, Joseph had wanted to keep his brother Benjamin close by, to serve as his slave in Egypt. The brothers return to Egypt, and Judah delivers a moving monologue on the importance of the special connection between Benjamin and his father, Jacob, and on the tragic consequences they can expect to endure if anything were to happen to Benjamin. Judah then volunteers to take his brother’s place as a slave in Egypt, and this triggers a dramatic turn of events:
“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, “Take everyone away from me! So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers” [Gen. 45:1].
In practice, Judah’s entreaty effectively ruined Joseph’s plans. Joseph never expected such a moving speech, and above all, he never expected the deep solidarity Judah expressed toward his brother, Benjamin, that took a personal tone. He had no choice but to reveal himself to his brothers at this point.
Our rabbis had various traditions to explain what caused Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers at precisely that point in time. Some say that Joseph feared the brothers would ravage Egypt, or kill Benjamin, while others propose that he had a hard time seeing his brothers publicly shamed, with the Egyptians looking on, and so on. What these explanations have in common is that something had gone awry for Joseph, and that he didn’t follow his original plan.
What eludes us is the plan itself. What was Joseph aiming for? What would have satisfied him, and brought him to reveal himself to his brothers, had everything turned out the way he wanted? We don’t know what Joseph had intended by ignoring his brothers for so many years. Was this his way of punishing them, and conveying a message to them? Or was he trying to cause them to repent? Whatever the reason for his behavior, the Torah reveals neither his plan nor his objectives.
Likewise, when he framed Benjamin for stealing the goblet, we are not told what his modus operandi was. He may have wanted to keep Benjamin at arm’s length, after which he would formally sever his ties with the other brothers, who, after trying to murder him, ended up selling him into slavery.
Joseph may have planned to reveal himself later, once all his dreams, down to the last detail, came true, and once his father came to bow down to him, even if this meant burdening his brothers with making another journey to the Land of Israel, and returning to Egypt with their father in an attempt to recover Benjamin.
The Torah does not say a word about Joseph’s plans, leaving those to our imagination. It does, however, provide a moving account of what Joseph did, while keeping his designs a mystery. Joseph could not bear it any longer.
The Midrash teaches, “In the days to come, the Holy One, Blessed Be He will come to reconcile with the People of Israel, and the people will say to him: ‘Master of the Universe, how shall I be reconciled? For You have not done for me as those of flesh and blood had done! Joseph, who is of flesh and blood – although his brothers had treated with him unjustly – did not exact revenge from them, for when they came to him, he felt mercy toward them, as it says ‘… and Joseph could not bear it any longer’ – but You showed me no mercy,, as it is said about You: “The Lord is merciful and gracious.’”
This is indeed a rather piercing Talmudic statement. Joseph had every reason in the world to take revenge on his brothers for what they had done to him. But at that moment of truth, when he looks into his brother’s eyes and sees their misery and their overwhelming concern for Benjamin, and when Joseph remembers his aged father, he can’t help but erupt in tears and become overtaken with feelings of mercy.
He remembers his brothers’ accusing glances and hateful speech, but he also knew how to see past that, and appreciate the pain and anxiety in which they were engulfed. He was able to become consumed with endless mercy and nostalgia for the brotherly love that had vanished, long ago, in his father’s home.
This is what prompts the Midrashic statement, demanding to know why the God of Israel had not showed mercy toward the Jewish people, just as Joseph had been merciful toward his brothers. Why could He not become overwhelmingly merciful toward His people, despite their failures, as Joseph had done?
This week, we will mark the fast of the 10th day of Tevet. Several decades ago, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided that on that date, the Mourner’s Kaddish would be recited in memory of those victims of the Holocaust for whom a specific date of death is not known. The Holocaust serves as a prime example for prompting the question posed by the Midrash, “… but You showed me no mercy.”
Yet our discussion, which focuses on Joseph’s conduct, mainly addresses our insights on ourselves. We often struggle to do what is right, and insist on promoting justice (usually when it comes to others). We do this in places we visit every day – on the roads we drive on, or when waiting in line at the pharmacy or the supermarket.
Will we relentlessly fight for justice to be fully served against anyone who does anything improper, and surely deserves to suffer the consequences? Or will we restrain ourselves, letting the mercy hidden within our souls manifest itself? The Torah could have told us about Joseph’s plans – both those that succeeded, and those that did not. Instead, it opted for Joseph’s mercy toward his brothers in order to become etched in our consciousness, and leaves us expecting something from Hashem: mercy for all of His creatures.