Vayechi: Real Relationships

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Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – Yogi Berra
To the unreflective, memory is quaint; a nostalgic window upon a past experience that might evoke a momentary glance backward (and perhaps even a smile). To a thinker, memory is a marker, a measurement of whither my dreams? Has life “happened” the way I thought it would?

A recent 60 minutes episode brought three Holocaust survivors back to Bad Arolson to view old records, ones that included their very own signatures registered as they “signed into” the concentration camps. In front of our very eyes, eighty year old men turn to fourteen year old boys, hammering home the transformative and transportable power of memory

As the embryonic stage of the Klal Yisrael nears completion, it is memory that creates incredible inner turmoil. As Yaakov dies, our questions remain.

A final interaction between Yosef and his brothers serves to partially illuminate. After Yaakov has died and the funeral is complete, the brothers turn to Yosef with what Chazal define as a necessary, defensive lie.

“Our father, before his death commanded us to tell you to forgive the sin of your brothers and that of the servants of the God of your father”. [50:16-17]

Their words evoke a passionate response from Yosef:

“Yosef wept as his brothers spoke to him”

For the ninth time in Sefer Bereishis, Yosef cries. It seems that this is a cri de cœur. What, about the brother’s words, evoked such an intense reaction from Yosef?

Ramban and Rabbeinu Bechayei deduce from this episode that Yaakov died without ever finding out that the brothers had sold Yosef. He reasons: had Yaakov known of the sale, surely he would have personally delivered that very message of forgiveness to Yosef. The fact that he never did so is proof positive that he never knew in the first place

We may take Ramban one step further. In simple game theory analysis, Ramban must also posit that the brothers did not know that Yaakov never knew! Had they been privy to Yaakov’s ignorance, how could they have attempted to sell Yosef a lie that would have no basis? They surely thought that Yaakov did know and thus attempted to protect themselves by hiding behind Yaakov.

One final logical conclusion may be drawn: The brothers thought Yaakov knew, though they never told him; ergo, they must have assumed that Yosef revealed the story of his sale to Yaakov. Of course this was not the case as Yosef Hatzadik, the man of control, kept the confidence. Sadly, even till the end, the brothers did not understand the greatness that was Yosef (1).

What prompted the brothers’ lie? Midrash Tanchuma [17:17] portrays a dramatic scene (2). On his way back from Yaakov’s funeral, Yosef makes a “pit” (bor) stop (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in Shechem to ponder the bor where it all began. It is Yosef at his nostalgic best. He considers his improbable ascent and with great passion recites the bracha of “sheasa li neis bamakom hazeh” (that Hashem made a miracle for me in this place). At this point, the brothers observe Yosef’s meditaion and shudder (3)

Has their day of reckoning finally arrived? Is it payback time for Yosef? They state their lie. This prompted Yosef’s bechiya – for in a sense there is an implicit Eisav equation (as in: “now that Dad has died, it’s time to even the score”) going on here and perhaps a fair amount of projection as well (4).

More poignantly, Yosef realized that after seventeen years of normalizations, he was still misunderstood after all these years. Thus concludes the sad story of Yosef and his brothers – a story that Rabbeinu Bechayei strikingly declares ends without the brothers achieving forgiveness.

To the extent that Yosef and his brothers are surely operating on the loftiest levels, a lesson we spiritual Lilliputians may still consider is this: We must focus on penetrating the superficial veneer of our relationships with our loved ones. Real relationships require commitment to understand the other, patience, and the courage to express deep and deeper feeling. At the end of our days, ours will be a cry of joy.


1. It seems that a careful analysis of Rashi yields a different conclusion. In a few places, Rashi indicates that Yaakov always had an inkling of the sale. In commenting on the brothers’ words here, Rashi states that Yaakov never made this statement as Yosef was not suspect in Yaakov’s eyes [to seek revenge] – clearly implying that Yaakov understood that there was revenge to be had.

2. See Midrash Rabah [cf. Rashi, 50:15] for a different notion

3. Ironically, precisely when Yosef is engaging in an act of Divine gratitude, he begins to arouse his brothers’ suspicions. The midrash concludes that one should be clean in the eyes of God and man

4. (How striking are the words of the midrash on lu yistemunu – halevai sheyistemunu – how we wish he (Yosef) would hate us!)

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.