"Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (Wikimedia)

Fears, Lies, But No Videotape

Jacob's death provokes the latent fear in Joseph's brothers that Joseph bears a grudge against them and the desire to make peace with him.

Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

  • Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh (also spelled Menashe). (Genesis 48:1-20)
  • Jacob’s twelve sons gather around his deathbed, and each receives an evaluation and a prediction of his future. (Genesis 49:1-33)
  • Joseph mourns his father’s death and has Jacob embalmed. Jacob is buried in Hebron in the cave of the field of the Machpelah in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 50:1-14)
  • Joseph assures his concerned brothers that he has forgiven them and promises to care for them and their families. (Genesis 50:15-21)
  • Just before he dies, Joseph tells his brothers that God will return them to the Land that God promised to the patriarchs. The Children of Israel promise Joseph that they will take his bones with them when they leave Egypt. (Genesis 50:22-26)
  • Focal Point

    When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that 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.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:15-17)

    Your Guide

    What meaning does the word “saw” have in the clause “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead?”

    Is the brothers’ fear justified?

    Is there evidence that Joseph did indeed act differently toward his brothers after their father died?

    Why did the brothers send a message to Joseph rather than talk to him in person?

    Do you believe that the message the brothers sent to Joseph was true?

    Why do you think Joseph cried?

    By the Way…

    “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” (Genesis 50:15) Rabbi Levi said [that they feared this because] “Joseph no longer invited them to dine with him.” Said Rabbi Tanchuma, “He meant it for the sake of heaven. Joseph said, “Father used to seat me higher than Judah, who is king, and higher than Reuben, who is the firstborn. Now it is not right that I should sit higher than them.” But the brothers understood matters differently and said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us.” (B’reishit Rabbah 100:8)

    “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead.” What does the text mean by “saw?” They perceived the effects of his death on Joseph. They were used to dining with Joseph and [were accustomed to] Joseph’s keeping on close terms with them out of respect for his father. But as soon as Jacob died, Joseph ceased to be on close terms with them. (Rashi on Genesis 50:15, drawing from the Midrash above)

    “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!” What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him. Upon seeing this, they said, “He still bears a grudge in his heart. Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred of us felt.” But in fact, Joseph’s motive was a pious one: He wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place. (Tanchuma, Va-y’chi 17)

    Once two monks were traveling together when they came upon a woman afraid to cross a rushing river. Despite their vows not to look at or touch women, one of the monks lifted her up and carried her to the other side of the stream. He set her down, and the two monks continued along the road. After six hours of silence, his companion could no longer contain his anger. “How could you break our vows and carry that woman?” he asked. The first monk replied, “I put her down six hours ago, but I see that you are still carrying her!” (a Zen tale)

    “Your father left this instruction.” They modified the words of Jacob in this matter in the interest of peace. For Jacob did not instruct thus, since Joseph was not suspect in his eyes. (Rashi on Genesis 50:16)

    Your Guide

    How is the Zen tale a reflection of the brothers’ state of mind?

    Did the brothers have reason to concoct a message to Joseph from their deceased father?

    Have you ever been in a situation in which telling a lie was a preamble to telling the absolute truth?

    On what basis do the Rabbis justify the brothers’ action? Do you agree with their interpretations?

    Do you agree with Rashi’s comment on Genesis 50:16 that sh’lom bayit is the most important lesson gleaned from these verses?

    How can you apply this lesson to your own life?

    D’var Torah

    We know from when the brothers first met with Joseph that Joseph was indeed accessible. The fact that the brothers chose to send a message to Joseph after Jacob died shows just how fearful they were of their brother. They did have reason to be afraid: After all, they had thrown him into the pit, and for twenty years they felt that they were responsible for his presumed death.

    Like the monk in the Zen tale above, we often find it hard to let go of grudges, and consequently they remain with us for a lifetime. The brothers have carried the heavy burden of guilt for twenty years. Now that their father, Jacob, has died, they fear that Joseph will take vengeance against them.

    The Rabbis refute this assumption, explaining that “Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him” because he was saddened by the brothers’ inability to see that what happened at the pit twenty years earlier was bashert, designed by God and thus meant to be. The brothers were unable to move on with their lives: They were slaves to a terrible memory they believed that Joseph shared. The author of this story had a mature understanding of human psychology almost 3,000 years before Freud!

    Fear of consequences often leads us to lie in order to avoid punishment, regardless of the pettiness of our act. Throwing Joseph into a pit because they were jealous of the way their father pampered him in childhood should not be considered a petty act. Yet the Rabbis justify the brothers’ fabricating a lie to save themselves from Joseph’s vengeance, which they indeed expect. There is no record (on video or otherwise!) that Jacob ever uttered the words or conveyed the message cited in Genesis 50:17. The Rabbis’ justification is derived from their elevation of the concept of shalom bayit (maintaining peace within the home or family) above all.

    There are other examples earlier in Genesis in which not only is a “white lie” permitted, it is in fact encouraged in order to maintain shalom bayit (for instance, in Genesis 18:12-15). If we are going to be God’s emissaries in striving to bring peace to our wounded world, we first must make shalom, peace, the foundation of our personal lives and the basis of our relationships with others.

    Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Discover More

Parashat Vayechi: Summary

On his deathbed, Jacob blesses his sons and asks them to bury him in Canaan.

The Deeper Meaning Of A Name

In naming his sons, Joseph communicates his thoughts on living in Egypt, alone and distant from his family.

From Fratricide To Fraternal Solidarity

The Joseph story provides us with a domestic model for our national ability to move through reconciliation to solidarity.