The brothers could not speak peacefully with Joseph because they allowed their anger and resentment to control them, rather than asserting their control over their anger.
Joseph is described as "the son of Jacob's old age," (verse 3), which may imply that Jacob doted on him in some unusual way as well, perhaps because Joseph was one of the youngest. Of course, the usual pattern in the ancient world is that the oldest child got the special privileges--although this is usually reversed in Genesis, it would be one more reason for the older brothers to hate the favored younger one.
However, even with all these perfectly understandable reasons for the brothers to hate Joseph, what does the Torah mean to teach us by saying they could not speak to him in peace? Why not just say they "did not?"
After all, when later they throw Joseph in the pit, we certainly wouldn't absolve them of responsibility for a crime just because they had understandable reasons to hate their victim--people have to take responsibility for their actions, despite their emotional state. Perhaps one can't help the way one feels, but Judaism certainly seems to advocate controlling how one reacts or acts up those emotions: "Who is the mighty one? The one who overcomes his/ her own impulses."
While this is not a direct commentary on our verse, the Hassidic master Rabbi Nahman of Braslav (Hasidic leader in the Ukraine, 1772-1811) says something which illuminates the dynamic between Joseph and his brothers. Rabbi Nachman reminds us that "the one who guards himself from anger will not be ruled over by those who trouble him."
I understand this to mean that if we act on our immediate emotional reactions to situations, we are not really in control of ourselves. If others are provoking us, they "rule" over us, because we've given them the power to influence our actions--and who wants to give over power in our lives to someone who is causing us trouble?
This emotional dynamic between Joseph and his brothers explains the vehemence of the next few paragraphs: in verses 5-11, Joseph reports having dreams in which sheaves of wheat, and even the sun and moon, bow down to him. Twice again, in verse 8 and verse 11, we are told that the brothers hated and were resentful of Joseph, because they accused him of wanting to rule over them.
On one level, this is a set-up for the end of the story, when the brothers will bow down to Joseph in Egypt, but on another level we can see the outlines of a tense psychological dynamic. The brothers resent and hate Joseph, and when he reports his dream, perhaps they hate him even more not only for his arrogance but because deep down they know he's right--as long as their resentment towards Joseph takes up so much of their psychological energy, he already rules over them, emotionally!
One of our hardest challenges as humans is to stay spiritually centered and focussed when we are in great pain, and family dynamics can be the most painful issues that some of us will encounter in our lives.
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