Sins of the Past

Joseph and his brothers try to move on.


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In Parashat Vayehi, we find a fascinating examination of complex relations amid a family struggling to move beyond the sins of the past. Much has changed since the traumatic incident decades earlier, when Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, eventually selling him into slavery. Now, after Jacob’s death, and with Joseph occupying a position of power, the brothers fear vengeance. They say:
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“Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.” So they instructed that Joseph be told, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “Please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and sin for they have done you evil.”

Steps Toward Reconciliation

Although their major motivation may be fear, the brothers make two important steps toward reconciliation: confessing their wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. The brothers’ request for forgiveness, however, is enacted in a strangely impersonal and roundabout manner, requesting that a third party retell the instructions of Jacob to Joseph. Additionally, these instructions, the sages inform us, are a fictional invention, part of the Torah’s testament to the “greatness of peace”–such that truth can be skewed in order to bring about peace between brothers. The brothers employ indirect, even devious means in their attempt to establish peace, yet their approach appears to be sanctioned by the Torah text.

In response Joseph weeps and assuages the brothers’ fear, telling them:

“Fear not, for am I instead of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good: in order to accomplish–it is as clear as this day–that a vast people be kept alive. So now, fear not–I will sustain you and your young ones.”

Joseph chooses to tell a different version of past events, minimizing his brothers’ malice while instead focusing on the beneficial final outcome. He reassures them that their sin was ‘for good’ in a historic sense, and promises them that he will look after their needs. Interestingly, Joseph leaves out any explicit mention of forgiveness–which is, after all, what the brothers were seeking–and nowhere do we find any of the words associated with atonement or expiation. It is clear Joseph wants to move on from the issue and has managed to reinterpret and rationalize prior events. Whether or not the rupture with his family was ever completely restored, remains a question.

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Daniel Bloom is an Australian-born environmentalist who currently works as a program associate at Hazon. He lives with his wife in New York City.

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