Joseph and Vengeance Questions by Joel Cohen
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Despite their plan to kill him — and later to cause his enslavement that, too, might potentially cause in his death — Joseph overcame all of his hurdles including his imprisonment at the hands of Potiphar’s wife. Yes, Joseph did, indeed, succeed in overcoming adversity through God’s aid in interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh — leading him to become Egypt’s viceroy. Still, one can understand his eagerness to exact revenge against his unsuspecting brothers – even tormenting them by playing the “wicked viceroy.”
But, their father Jacob was an innocent in this affair. Joseph surely knew that his father would have given Joseph up for lost or dead. He would also have known that Jacob could hardly have known that Joseph himself was the wicked viceroy who took Simon as a hostage, and demanded that Benjamin be produced to him in Egypt, possibly to imprison him or worse.
• We call Joseph, Joseph “the Zaddik” — the righteous one. How can a “righteous” son, even one justified in seeking vengeance against his guilty brothers, be willing to let his father (and innocent brother) suffer so for the sins of the other sons?
• Putting aside the issue of Jacob and Benjamin as incidental victims, is the Torah essentially telling us that exacting vengeance can be an appropriate reaction when one is the victim of clear wrongdoing by one’s fellow man?
• How can one explain that Joseph, having succeeding in Egypt, never sent word to his aging father Jacob that he was alive and well and could be of enormous aid to the entire family likely on the verge of suffering from famine?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
Joseph’s behavior vis a vis his father and his seeming neglect of his father for the duration of his stay in Egypt has been the subject of many commentaries throughout the generations. Most of these commentators attempt to justify Joseph’s actions explaining that he went through the process of manipulating the brothers in order to allow them to do teshuva.
I would like to suggest an alternative explanation based on a comment of Thomas Mann, the great German essayist of the first half of the twentieth century. In his work Joseph and His Brothers, a retelling of the stories at the end of Genesis, Mann claimed that while Joseph was in the pit he swore that he would never speak to his father again. According to Mann, Joseph blamed his father’s favoritism of him for the hatred of the brothers and for his humiliation at their hands.
According to this view, Joseph is not to be viewed as a tzaddik in his early years in Egypt. Rather, he is an estranged son who is angry at his father and blames him for all his misfortune. Joseph’s behavior in Egypt seems to support this explanation. He marries an Egyptian woman and names his son Menashe whose root is “to forget” since Joseph sees himself as having forgotten his father’s house. In addition, when the brothers come to Joseph, they do not recognize him and don’t understand the language that he speaks. While the traditional commentators try to explain the lack of recognition based on the fact that Joseph left them without a beard and now he had a beard, it seems more plausible that Joseph had totally assimilated into Egyptian society rendering him unrecognizable by his brothers.
However, this is not the end of the story. When Joseph initially sees his brothers, his inclination is to torture them and through that torture to punish his father as well. Yet, as the story progresses, Joseph seems to soften and when Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin, Joseph’s true brother, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with the famous question ”is my father still alive?”
Joel—you asked why Joseph is called the tzaddik even though he tortured his father. I would suggest based on this reading of the story that the description of tzaddik is the rabbis’ way of telling us that Joseph was the first baal teshuva in history. He is the first character in the Torah who become estranged from his father and the tradition he represents and then after much contemplation returns to that tradition. Now that is what a tzaddik really is all about.
It says there is no joy for a father greater than seeing his children co-existing in peace. In order to understand this in the context of Joels questions, and to expand on some of Rabbi Mintz’s themes in this weeks discussion, , we need to look at 2 key occurrences:
1) The discussion between the brothers at the time that Joseph reveals his identity to them
“Joseph could not hold in his emotions,” the Torah relates. He dismissed from his chamber all of his Egyptian assistants, “and he began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians outside could hear him. And Joseph said to his brothers: ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’ His brothers were so astounded, they could not respond.”
The humiliation the brothers experienced when Joseph revealed himself to them did not stem from the fact that he rebuked them for their selling him into slavery. Joseph’s mere appearance to them constituted the most powerful rebuke: For the first time they realized who it was that they subjected to such horrific abuse and their hearts melted away in shame.
As an aside the Talmud employs the relationship of Joseph and his brothers (According to Rabbi Elazer) as a metaphor of the relationship between the soul of a person in this world and the service of its creator. There are times epiphanies when our soul shines so strongly that we feel the closeness to G-d that a mitzvah brings, and G—d forbid the opposite is true. There are times when we realize that by neglecting our soul we have missed the point.
2) The second key interaction is the discussion between the brothers after Jacob , their father, passes away
Now Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.” 16. So they commanded [messengers to go] to Joseph, to say, “Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying, 17. ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “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.” ‘ ” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18. His brothers also went and fell before him, and they said, “Behold, we are your slaves.” 19. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? 20. 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.21. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.
Based on the above it would in fact seem that Joseph does earn his stripes, so to speak, earning the title Tzaddik, for instead of acquiescing to his personal desires and urges he controls himself. When he reveals himself to his brothers he demands it be done in privacy, rashi explains that he does not want his brothers to be embarrassed. Then again when Jacob passes away instead of giving into the human feelings of revenge against those who he felt had harmed and wronged him, he recognizes G-ds master plan in the journey of his life. This is a part of the process of Teshuva – Returning, and in fact gives credence to the entire rekindled relationship of the brothers that eventually withstands the test of Jacobs death.
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