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Ya'akov's Endgame

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

The saga seems to have finally come to an end. The entire family has been reunited; Yosef with his eleven brothers; Ya’akov with his beloved son, Yosef. The Torah describes how the brothers settled in Goshen, a segregated area within Egypt. Then, in this week’s parsha, we hear of Ya’akov’s parting words to his children. In an impressive ceremony which involves a procession spanning two countries, Ya’akov is laid to rest in Me’arat Hamechpela. The era of the Avot has ended and so, we expect, has the book of Bereishit.  But then, we read of one more narrative, a discussion between Yosef and his brothers:

Now Yosef's brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, "Perhaps Yosef will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him."  So they commanded [messengers to go] to Yosef, to say, "Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying: 'So shall you say to Yosef, "Please, forgive now your brothers' transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Yosef wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also went and fell before him, and they said, "Behold, we are your slaves." But Yosef said to them, "Don't be afraid, for am I instead of God?  Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.  (Bereishit 50:15-20)

The concern of the brothers, whilst understandable, is a little surprising.  After all, Yosef has had many opportunities to take revenge on his brothers. As viceroy of Egypt he wielded great power which he employed earlier in his dealings with his siblings. Yet, in the dramatic scene in last week’s parsha, when Yosef reveals his true identity, he is quick to reassure his brothers that he sees his fate as part of a larger Divine plan. He therefore did not use his power to punish them nor does Yosef even seem to apportion blame on his brothers for what befell him. The only rationale for their concern at this point is that they feel that after their father’s death Yosef may change the way he acts towards them.

With this in mind, the brothers approach Yosef with a demand from their father to forgive them for what they had done to him. This way, they hope that Yosef will feel compelled to comply with their request.

Rashi points out that Ya’akov did not in fact say during his lifetime what the brothers quote in his name. How can they do this? How can they in effect lie? Rashi, quotes the famous statement of the Gemara that “mutar leshanot mipenei hashalom – one can change the truth for the sake of peace”. In attempting to ensure family unity Yosef;s siblings told him an untruth.

However, other mefarshim (Sforno, Rav Hirsch) imply that Ya’akov did indeed give these instructions to be delivered to Yosef after his death but it was not recorded in the Torah until this point. This raises the obvious question:  If Ya’akov believed that Yosef should forgive his brothers for their actions, why did he not mandate him to do so in person while he was still alive? Surely that would have been more beneficial as he could then have ensured that his request was fulfilled.

I would like to suggest an answer to this question based on an idea that I heard many years ago from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. When Ya’akov finally find out what had happened to Yosef all those years earlier, why did he not confront his sons and ask them why they had lied to him about Yosef’s fate? True, they did not tell Ya’akov an outright lie but rather allowed him to reach his own conclusions as to what had befallen Yosef. Nevertheless, it was clear that they had deceived their father and yet, Ya’akov never challenges them. He does not appear to demand an explanation for the untruth they told him; an untruth which caused Ya’akov to live in grief for so many years.

Rabbi Riskin suggested that the simple reason why Ya’akov did not say to his sons “why did you lie to me” is because he was afraid that their response would be: you too lied to your father. Ya’akov lived his life haunted by the fact that he had deceived his father during the episode of the bracha and so he did not feel that he could accuse his sons of deceiving him.  This portrays Ya’akov as somewhat of a tragic figure who spends his life regretting one of his earlier choices to the extent that it effects how he relates to those closest to him.

Kli Yakar on last week’s parsha (Bereishit 45:27) actually claims that the many years that Ya’akov lived without his son Yosef were some form of punishment for the prolonged period during which Ya’akov was absent from his father’s home. Kli Yakar is referring to the many years Ya’akov spent with Lavan. He even suggests that the two time periods are identical; twenty-two years in both cases.

We can adopt this idea and connect it to our earlier suggestion. After all, part of the initial reason as to why Ya’akov fled to Padan Aram was to avoid Esav who threatened to kill him for deceiving their father and thus “stealing” his bracha. It would therefore appear that much of Ya’akov’s travails were affected by that one episode with the bracha.

This may also explain the nature of Ya’akov’s somewhat strange statement to Paro in last week’s parsha. In response to Paro’s question: “how old are you?” Ya’akov responds by lamenting the fact that he has had a hard life, one incomparable to that of his forefathers before him. It is possible that these words too may reflect Ya’akov’s sense that all that has befallen him regarding Yosef and the surrounding events relates back to things he did earlier on in his life.

Let us now return to our original question. The reason why Ya;akov did not ask Yosef to forgive his brothers is because such a scenario would have required Ya’akov to do the same. Although, as we explained above, Ya’akov did not feel he had the moral backbone to confront his sons about what they had done, he also could not find it within his heart to forgive them. The grief that he had been caused is described by Yehuda in his impassioned plea to Yosef at the beginning of Parshat Vayigash. It is clear that Ya’akov’s stubborn reluctance to allow Binyamin to leave his side is a direct corollary of his having lost his beloved son, Yosef.

Ya’akov may feel inadequate in his inability to forgive his sons and he therefore does the next best thing. He leaves instructions to ask Yosef to forgive his brothers. That which he could not do himself, he leaves to his son, Yosef. In this respect, it is possible that Ya’akov feels somewhat incomplete. He should be the one to close the circle and forgive his sons but he cannot do it because of the pain this confrontation would cause. Like David Hamelech in the haftarah who instructs his son Shlomo to deal with the “unfinished business” from his reign, so Ya’akov Avinu passes over the responsibility for the family and the future of Am Yisrael to Yosef.

Yosef has always been able to see the “bigger picture”. Yosef, who quotes Elokim over and over again in his role as dream interpreter and on revealing himself to his brothers, sees God’s hand in the entire saga. For this reason, Sefer Bereishit ends with Yosef’s assurance to his family (Bereishit 50:24):

Elokim will remember you and  bring you up from this land, to the land which He has promised to Avraham, Yitchak and Ya’akov.

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Yonatan

Comments and questions are welcome:


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