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Joseph's "sweet revenge"

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

"...And they said, 'Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us...' " (Genesis 50:15)

Upon returning from burying Jacob, Joseph's brothers sensed that Joseph's attitude toward them had changed, and they said:

"Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him." (Genesis 50:15)

The word "loo" usually means halevai – "if only" – an expression of hope that what follows in the sentence will come to pass. In this context it is very difficult to understand why Joseph's brothers would have hoped that he would hate them and repay them with the evil they did to him. (see Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh ad loc)

To understand the brothers' statement, it is necessary to first understand why Joseph put his brothers through the entire ordeal beginning with the accusation of being spies. Why did he not just forgive them from the start and acknowledge what he himself subsequently told them: "You meant my sale for bad, but God made it work out for the good" ?

When the brothers first appeared before Joseph, he recognized them and considered carefully what to say to them. And he spoke to them "harsh words," asking, "Where have you come from?" They answered, "From the land of Canaan to procure food." Then the Torah repeats that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Why does the Torah describe the question of where they came from as "harsh"? And why does the Torah repeat that Joseph recognized his brothers?

The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:1) quotes Akavia ben Mehalalel:

"Consider three things, and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came, to where you go, and before Whom you will eventually give an accounting for all you have done."

There are three major causes of sin – jealousy, lust and the desire for glory. If one remembers that he started out, as all of us do, from a lowly drop of cell matter, then he will not be jealous of others. Rather he will appreciate that he has been provided with the means to develop. If one considers the ultimate end of his physical body – decomposition in the earth – he will better be able to control his physical lusts. And if one considers the accounting he will have to give, standing before the King of Kings, this should help to minimize any delusions of personal glory and grandeur.

At first, Joseph thought that his brothers also recognized him, and he therefore carefully chose the proper words to castigate them. Since that injustice emanated from a slight fault of jealousy on their part, Joseph challenged his brothers with the statement, "Where did you come from?" He meant that "lowly drop" from which we all come, and his implicit question was: In light of where we all came from, how could you have been jealous of me? When they took his question literally and answered, "From Canaan to procure food," he realized that they did not recognize him.

The Midrash relates that initially Joseph wanted to reveal himself to his brothers immediately. But the angel who directed him to his brothers 22 years earlier at Dosan (Genesis 37:15) appeared to him and told him that they had come to kill him. Only then did Joseph disguise himself and put them through the ordeal of being suspected as spies.

This can be understood in the following manner. The angel represents the Divine Providence that led Joseph to his brothers. The angel's appearance at that moment was an indication that the entire episode was being orchestrated from Above. By informing Joseph that his brothers still wished to kill him, the angel meant that they were being judged according to their intention and not according to how God had caused things to work out. As the Sages say, one who intends to eat pork and by mistake eats kosher meat still needs atonement.

As long as the brothers failed to recognize their error in selling Joseph, they could not repent for their deed. Therefore Joseph devised a plan to bring them to acknowledge their mistake and atone for it. First, he presented them with a situation in which they could observe another person acting as they had, and thereby obtain an objective perspective on their own behavior. He showed them how circumstantial evidence could be misconstrued to make them appear to be spies, though there was not a shred of truth in the accusation. In this way they would realize that their assessment of his motives in reporting to their father and relating his dreams was wrong.

Second, he put them into a situation in which their brother Binyamin endangered them both personally and their future role in the Jewish people, just as they had perceived Joseph as doing. The only difference between the two circumstances was the absence of jealousy in the latter case. By comparing their different responses in the two cases, they would see how jealousy had colored their responses with respect to him. Their concern for their father Jacob's feelings and their own love for Binyamin, which played such a large role in their thoughts at that moment, would also have been present with Joseph had it not been for their jealousy.

Third, he sought to fulfill the dreams in their entirety so that they could recognize clearly that those dreams were of a prophetic nature, and not, as they suspected, reflections of Joseph's subconscious designs. In addition, the fulfillment of the dreams permitted him to prepare them for their future roles in the Jewish nation. As the verse clearly states, "He remembered the dreams he had dreamt for them" – for them, not about them.

Fourth, he sought to take revenge, which when appropriate can be beneficial. The Sages tell us that vengeance is great, for it is put between two names of God, "A God of vengeance is God." A Torah scholar who does not take revenge like a snake, the Sages say, is not a Torah scholar! Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz explains that revenge is the vehicle to "even the score" with evil and balance out the seeming gain and benefit accrued by evil means. Vengeance shows that crime does not pay and that justice prevails. But there is one absolute condition on this vengeance: the one taking revenge must have no personal pleasure from it. He must be as a snake which derives no pleasure when it bites.

In this light, we can understand what Joseph said upon naming his firstborn son, "God has caused me to forget all my troubles and my father's home." Why did Joseph give thanks for forgetting his father's home? Because only by forgetting all personal vendettas and pain could his revenge remain untainted and pure. It is evident from Joseph's repeated crying fits how difficult it was for him to continue his brothers' ordeal, and that revenge was far from "sweet" for him.

Fifth, Joseph sought to provide them with the opportunity to receive repentance with suffering and tribulation, to compensate and offset the pain they had wrongly caused him. He threw them into the pit of prison so that they could personally know how he felt when they threw him into a pit. Then he removed them and left Shimon alone, so that they could grieve for a brother left in a pit, as they had failed to grieve for him. He then returned their money to their sacks, which they construed as the payment for Shimon's enslavement (see Ba'alei HaTosafos). The repugnance of such money reminded them of taking money for selling Joseph as a slave.

Finally, Joseph sought to put his brothers in a similar situation to the one in which they wronged him, to see if their repentance was complete. The ultimate test of the ba'al teshuva is being placed in the same situation and not repeating the sin. Thus, Joseph gave Binyamin extra provisions to arouse any jealousy they might feel for the remaining son of Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel.

The whole charade came to a dramatic climax when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. At that moment the intense truth of his innocence and their sin was so clear that it served as the most powerful and effective rebuke. The inability of the brothers to respond foreshadow our own stunned silence on the Day of Judgment when we will be confronted with our sins, and all our petty justifications will melt away.

This entire scenario, however, would only be effective if the brothers had only acted out of fear that Joseph sought to usurp their roles in the Jewish people, and not out of any intrinsic hatred of him and desire to kill him. The brothers were convinced that they were not guilty of this last sin. Although they originally decided to kill Joseph, the fact that Reuven and Yehudah so easily talked them out of it revealed that their intentions were never serious.

Returning to Egypt from burying Jacob in Israel, the brothers passed by the spot where Joseph had been sold, and Joseph went to the pit and recited the blessing, "God has performed a miracle for me in this place." Seeing this, the brothers became terrified and exclaimed:

"Perhaps Joseph will now hate us and return to us all the evil we perpetrated upon him." (Genesis 50:15)

The law is that one recites the blessing over a miracle only when one's life was in mortal danger, and the brothers interpreted Joseph's recitation as proof that he thought they had actually intended to kill him.

After returning to Egypt, Joseph stopped inviting the brothers to eat by him, which they also construed as signaling a new attitude toward them now that Jacob was no longer alive. They reasoned that the entire ordeal that Joseph had put them through did not compensate for what Joseph saw as their intention to kill him, and their atonement was not yet complete. Therefore, they exclaimed, Loo! (Halevai – Let it be) that Joseph hates us." If Joseph is correct that we are guilty on this account, too, they reasoned, let him hate us and thereby afford us an opportunity to clean our slates for eternity. Hence they fell before him in total subjugation.

Joseph, however, comforted them and explained that he did not think that they had intended to kill him. He made the blessing over the pit because unbeknownst to them the pit contained deadly snakes and scorpions, and therefore he had been in mortal danger. And he had stopped inviting them to eat with him for a completely extraneous reason. While Jacob was alive, Joseph sat at the end of the table because Jacob placed him there. But now that Yehudah had received the blessing of monarchy, Joseph felt it was improper for him to continue sitting at the head of the table. As the viceroy of Egypt, however, it would have been a slight to the Pharaoh if he did not sit at the head of the table. To avoid this problem, he stopped inviting his brothers.

Nevertheless, a blemish remained from the sale of Joseph, precisely because Joseph told his brothers that they did not need to ask for his forgiveness. His reasoning: Although they intended evil, God made it work out for the good. Rabbi David Kronglass of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, once pointed out that a beneficial outcome is by itself no proof that neither atonement nor forgiveness is needed. The Torah says concerning a woman who violates a vow, which unbeknownst to her was previously annulled by her husband, "God will forgive her" (Numbers 30:13). The intention to sin, even where no sin was committed, still requires forgiveness. For that reason Rebbe Akiva wept every time he read the verse.

Rebbe Akiva was one of the Ten Martyrs, whose deaths were the final atonement for the blemish left from the sale of Joseph. He wept in premonition of the punishment yet to come because of Joseph's failure to extract full atonement from his brothers.

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