Genesis Brothers on the Edge
Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
The Book of Genesis revolves around stories of rivalry between brothers, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. All entail terrible acts of violence—murder, banishment, stolen blessing, plotted revenge, and abduction into slavery—exacerbated by God’s favor of the younger son. Do we see any moral evolution from that original act of fratricide to the relationship between Jacob’s sons, the twelve founding fathers of Israel? Certainly, no blood is shed in the saga of Joseph and his brothers. They “merely” throw him into a pit to die (plan A, Gen. 37:23-24), and then plot to sell him into slavery (plan B, v. 27)–or he is sold by the Midianites (v. 28)–and they cover up the crime with the bloodied cloak. Yet the brothers never confess to their sin and Joseph never directly rebukes them.
Nevertheless, there is a final attempt at reconciliation in the last chapter. Upon the brothers’ return to Egypt after burying their father in Canaan, they are suddenly seized by fear: “Seeing that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us [lu yistemenu] and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’” (Gen. 50:15). The Hebrew term “to bear a grudge” (sin.tet.mem.) is quite rare, echoing Esau’s deep animosity towards Jacob after stealing the blessing, “Now Esau harbored a grudge [va-yistom] against Jacob…” (Gen. 27:41), and plotted to kill him after the death of their father. Perhaps Joseph too is plotting to avenge the wrong done to him after their father’s demise. They then send word to tell Joseph that their father had urged him to forgive them (50:16-17), though there is no record of this last will and testament from the old patriarch.
The midrash asks the question: what had changed in Joseph’s demeanor that prompted them to fabricate such a story?
“And Joseph’s brothers, seeing that their father was dead….” (Gen. 50:15). What did they now see that they were afraid? When they returned from burying their father, they saw that Joseph went to make a blessing over that pit where his brothers had thrown him. As a person should do over a place where a miracle was done for him, he said: “Blessed be God, who made me a miracle in this place!” When they saw this, they said, “Now that our father is dead, what if Joseph hates us and pays us back for all the evil that we did to him!” (v. 15) So they sent a message to Joseph saying: “Your father left this instruction…. ‘So shall you say to Joseph…’” (vv. 16-17). We have searched but we have not found that Jacob left any such instruction! But come and see the power of peace: God wrote such things in His Torah about the power of peace–these are the words. [Tanchuma VaYechi 17].
In this midrash, Joseph is poised over the edge of the pit. The brothers imagine him cursing, plotting his revenge, while he is, in fact, in a mode of prayer, of thanksgiving. The brothers see not as Joseph’s sees—an asymmetry engendered by unresolved guilt, on the one hand, and an understanding of the master narrative, on the other. Joseph takes the moral high ground as he is wont to do (Gen. 45:5-8, 50:19-20). He attributes all that happened to him to God: his dreams and his dream interpretation, his rise to power and promotion to viceroy in Egypt. Being thrown into the pit served the divine plan, which ultimately ensured the survival of his family through the famine. He looks now at that pit not as a near-grave, a place of asphyxiation crawling with snakes and scorpions, but as a place of miracle. This is the survivor’s narrative, the redemptive turn, as he tells his brothers: “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good…” (50:20).
But the problem, highlighted by the midrash, is that they don’t hear this prayer: “Blessed be God who made a miracle for me in this place.” Joseph sees the pit as a site of miracle; they feel only shame. Instead of a direct confession or apology, they adjure Joseph to forgive them because it was their father’s last will and testament. According to the midrash, these words testify to “the power of peace”—not truth! Perhaps when Joseph takes the high road, he inadvertently prevents the brothers from really assuming responsibility for their terrible sin.
The first time I really understood the destructive impact of the discrepancy between Joseph’s ‘survivor’ narrative and the brothers’, was when my student, Dovid Schlitt, gave a model class called, “Shame, Sensitivity, and Silence in Bereshit 45.” drawing from the insights Brené Brown (see her Ted Talk). Brown tells us that there is something ineluctable to shame; it affects one’s self-esteem, makes one want to disappear; it is not guilt or the admission of wrong-doing. “Guilt is ‘I did something bad’; Shame is ‘I am bad!’” What emerged from our discussion in class was that the brothers’ shame remains unresolved because of the secrecy, silence and judgment that surround their crime. They never move from the sense of shame to guilt, confession, and resolution. Joseph can no more rebuke his brothers than they can openly confess to their sin. His awareness of the divine plan and, perhaps, his own impulse to protect them from shame, precludes the resolution of their guilt. So it becomes, in Zornberg’s reading, “the original sin” which we collectively atone for in each generation (see the liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, on the ten martyrs, which we read on Yom Kippur, and Zornberg, “What if Joseph Hates Us?” in The Murmuring Deep, 313-343).
Yet Joseph does offer them some means of atoning for what they did to him. The resolution, however, will not come within their lifetime, but generations into the future. Before Joseph dies, he makes his brothers swear to carry his bones out from here [Egypt] “when God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Gen. 50:25-26; fulfilled in Exod. 13:19 and Josh. 24:32). He is asking them, or rather their children’s children, to remember him, not to abandon him in the pit as the brothers had, the pit as an intimation of Egypt, Land of the Dead, of Sheol. Through the oath, they become a band of brothers committed to the arc of God’s plan: the return home from exile. So while we may bear the consequences, however slight, of the brothers’ “original sin,” we also bear the collective responsibility as a people, to carry each other’s bones homeward bound, to help find that resting place of belonging.
Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She received her PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When she is not writing books, articles, or divrei torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.