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Two Minutes of Torah: Vayechi - Brotherly Love

In my teenage years, I often had a curfew by which the time I was expected to be home on the weekend.  Often, when I knew I wasn’t going to make the curfew, I would arrive home and immediately tell my parents about the traffic I encountered, or often about getting lost via this place in England called South Oxhey, which was a plausible place I could have ended up, explaining those extra 10, 15, 20 minutes.  I don’t know if my parents ever really believed me, but I always thought that by starting with an excuse or a reason, they would be more charitable in considering why I’d arrived home so late. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we begin by hearing that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.  17 years have elapsed since Joseph and his brothers were reunited and that moment where Joseph cried and revealed himself to them.  And, this week Jacob dies.  

Immediately after the funeral we read that the brothers saw their father was dead and then they said to themselves, what if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him, and so to preempt the situation, they send a message to Joseph saying, “before his death, your father left instructions, 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.”  They come up with an excuse in advance to encourage Joseph to deal charitably with them.

In the Torah, we have no record of Jacob ever saying this, and we read immediately afterwards, Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.  These are not the tears of joy of last week’s Torah portion, instead, I wonder if these are tears of sadness and regret.  Regret that 17 years have elapsed since that reunion, and Joseph recognizes now that the brothers still don’t believe that he has truly forgiven them.  

In their mind, it is clear that they believe that Joseph was behaving in this way purely because his father was still alive.  And, looking after them only out of deference and respect for his father.  As the brothers offered to be slaves to Joseph, he says to them, “have no fear am I a substitute for God, besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people, and, so fear not, I will sustain you and your children.”

The Torah comments on this that he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.  The brothers lie came from a place of fear of the punishment that still awaited them and the guilt that they felt for what they had done to Joseph.  But their brother demonstrated how he had risen above it all, and how through a real act of brotherly love and compassion, he was willing to forgive them, and had always been willing to forgive them.

Immediately after this, we read of Joseph’s death and we come to the end of the book of  Bereshit, the book of Genesis.  This book, which is so characterized by brotherly tension, ends with this act of brotherly love, this act of forgiveness, and this act of compassion from Joseph.  With this moment, we are ready to make the transition to become a people and begin the book of Shemot, Exodus next week.

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