Forgiving Our Brothers

Vayehi Drash by Stan Satz

Va-y’hi: Gen. (47:28-50:26)

In Chapter 50, after Jacob, the last of the Patriarchs, dies, Joseph’s brothers are terrified that Joseph will now severely punish them for conspiring to vengefully and treacherously entomb him in a desert pit to either rot away or be enslaved. “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him?” Initially afraid to face Joseph directly, the brothers (perhaps waiting nearby) either have someone else deliver a last-minute message from Jacob to Joseph, or they do so themselves as they cautiously approach him: “before his death, your father left this instruction. ’Forgive, I urge you, the offense and the guilt of your brothers who have treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph was in tears.” The brothers, awed by his apparent breakdown, now tentatively come even closer to Joseph while he is still weeping. (verses 15-18)

Many ancient and modern biblical scholars have pointed out the abundant ambiguity in these verses. Textually, there is no indication that Jacob pleaded with or commanded his sons to tell Joseph that he should be merciful towards them. Should we believe the brothers, or did they manufacture this self-serving smokescreen to ingratiate themselves with Joseph, who now that Jacob has died, might well be planning to execute his brothers for their loathsome betrayal?  Nor do we know if Joseph fully believes Jacob’s alleged deathbed testament. In fact, Joseph might be weeping because he laments that his brothers have concocted such a scenario, a scam that exploits their father and insults Joseph’s intelligence.  On the other hand, Joseph may have spontaneously sobbed because he was so relieved that Jacob devoutly wanted to erase any residual enmity that Joseph had for his brothers. In any case, whether or not Joseph believes their account, the brothers go one step further by displaying their devotion to Joseph: “They flung themselves before him and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves’” (verse 18).

If the brothers had any doubts about Joseph’s stance, verses 19 to 21 indicate that they no longer have to anxiously anticipate Joseph’s justified wrath. Joseph will always protect them (if not cherish them), even though they once sought to dispose of him. “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. Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

Even if the brothers concocted a story about their father’s wanting Joseph to spare them, the result is a blessing, according to this legendary Talmudic commentary: “Great is peace, for even the tribal ancestors resorted to a fabrication in order to make peace between Joseph and themselves” (Midrash 59).

The revenge and reconciliation motif reminds me of my relationship with my younger brother. I was living in New Bern, North Carolina, when my aging and ailing parents moved nearby. My brother was sequestered in Albuquerque. Up to that time, my brother and I were always gracious to each other.

Within a few months, my father developed a slew of afflictions: Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, emasculating prostate cancer and bone cancer.  My health worsened as well: I was beset with liver abnormalities, an ulcer, and intermittent back spasms.

When I told my brother about the anxieties that I had with our father’s deepening deterioration and my own physical problems, he didn’t offer me any support. His indifference infuriated me. I solely had the burden of caring for my father and watching him degenerate. Maybe my brother felt that I deserved the misery enveloping me. After all, for years, my father favored me more than he did my brother. Nonetheless, I stewed in my resentment.

Soon, I got my revenge. My brother’s son was to have his bar-mitzvah in a few months. My parents and I were invited. Of course, my father, who was now in a nursing home, was too ill to attend. My mother implored me to fly with her to Albuquerque for the ceremony. I, ensconced in my hurt feelings, steadfastly refused to go. My partly valid excuse was that I couldn’t leave my father in his godforsaken decline. Actually, I stayed home so that I wouldn’t have to confront my disloyal, heartless brother.

When my mother died soon afterward, my brother came to the funeral. I was apprehensive about our ensuing encounter, fearing that I might or he might become combative; but things went pretty smoothly: We politely exchanged commiserations.  I suppressed my animosity towards my brother, and if he had any against me, he didn’t reveal it.

When our father died a few months later, my brother did not come to the funeral. What an affront to me and my deceased dad! Was my brother paying me back for not attending his son’s bar-mitzvah?  Was this his revenge? I was devastated. He didn’t even send a sympathy card.

However, two weeks after the funeral, my brother phoned me. He seemed contrite, but I had no use for his belated concern. I scorned his reaching out to me. How could he make up for those years of ignoring the agony that our father and I had to endure?

With my wife’s encouragement, I frequently saw a counselor to help me contend with my anger towards my brother. At the last session, as I began to relate how close my brother and I once were when we were kids, I started to cry. And when I further recounted that when my brother got a bit older, he thwarted my affection, never mind my attention, I wept some more. I was surprised that I got so emotional. I guess I missed my brother more than I’d like to admit. Then I reflected on how self-righteously critical of him I have been ever since he distanced himself from our father and from me. Perhaps I was responsible for poisoning our relationship. Then I began to dredge up all the instances in which I gave my brother such a hard time: for driving barefoot, or for preferring dissonant modern classical composers to the melodies of the romantic titans, or for hanging out with our sketchy iconoclastic cousin, who my father and I felt was a bad influence. How petty I was. That last counseling session was quite an epiphany.

No longer enraged against my brother, I regularly phoned him about my incredibly enriching life in Honolulu, and he warmly shared his delight in Albuquerque. We began to be truly engaged with each other.

A few years ago, we consolidated our camaraderie: I went to my brother’s grandson’s bar-mitzvah in Albuquerque. At first, shaking each other’s hands was the extent of the developing trust between my brother and me. A couple of days after the affair, just as I was getting into the rental car to leave for the airport, my brother bounded out of his house, evidently to wish me a safe trip. Instead, he embraced me for the first time during our visit. Overwhelmed by his unexpected and much appreciated gesture, I gladly reciprocated.

Recently, I again visited my brother in Albuquerque. This time, there were hugs galore, and he even fixed my favorite dish, slabs of salmon. Now that’s true affection.

As with Joseph and his brothers, there are many threads in the saga between my brother and me; but the most life-enhancing ones transform bitter revenge into sweet reconciliation.

As we approach 2024 in a couple of days, let us look forward towards forgiving people (especially family and friends) who we feel have slighted or demeaned us in the past. Such a reassessment (however painful)  would be a blessing. Amen.

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