“And Pharaoh said, ‘Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath” (Genesis 50:6).
Parashat Vayechi describes the end of the patriarchal era: Jacob blesses his sons and dies. Vayechi continues, saying, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still nurses hatred for us…’” (Gen. 50:15). Since they’ve lived well together in Egypt for seventeen years what provokes the brothers’ anxiety?
One early commentary says once Jacob dies, the brothers “see” Joseph no longer eats with them. They assume he’s expressing his anger but Joseph is really trying to protect them from persecution from Egyptian accusations of seeking power through nepotism (Genesis Rabbah 100, 8). Another commentary says while traveling to Canaan to bury Jacob, the brothers see Joseph make a side trip to the pit where they had cast him. They fear this triggers his enmity when really, Joseph feels only awe and gratitude for the winding path of his miraculous life journey (Pirkei de-Rebi Eliezer).
In each interpretation, Joseph’s behavior is motivated by good intentions, yet his actions are perceived entirely opposite by his brothers. When he learns of their fear, he cries, and responds, “Fear not, hatachat Elohim ani, am I a substitute for God?” (Gen. 50:19). Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997; a scholar who revolutionized the teaching of the weekly Torah portion) points out these are the same words Jacob uses when Rachel complains of her barrenness (Gen. 30: 1,2). In that story, Jacob doesn’t care about Rachel’s feelings; he just wants to release himself from responsibility. Now, Joseph does care about his brothers’ feelings; he uses the same words to reassure them. Empathy is why Jacob is condemned and Joseph is commended (Midrash Tanchuma).
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom