The death of a loved one often brings chaos to a family. This is especially true when a patriarch or matriarch who once served as glue for their household disappears. When they die, turmoil often remains.
One reason for this disorder is because it is our fallible human instinct to assume, to jump to conclusions and to read our fears into situations. On the one hand, our impulse to label and classify is helpful; it brings order to otherwise chaotic events. If he is selfish or she is callous we know who we can trust and the world seems little more secure. However, all too often our anger and abuse is not misplaced. We are waiting for the peacemaker to die so we can cut ties and move on from people that have hurt us.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we receive a master class in the many fears and anxieties that creep into a family after a loved one dies. The whole portion is an extended death scene. Jacob, the patriarch of the family passes away. In the moments after Jacob’s death, his sons approach their brother Joseph and ask him for mercy. They sold him into slavery decades earlier and want assurances that Joseph will not use his father’s death as excuse to exact revenge on them.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: 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.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:15-17).
The brother’s statement is a lie. There is no indication from the text that they ever had this conversation with their father. However, their fear of Joseph necessitated their untruth. They assumed the worst in Joseph and misrepresented their father to save themselves.
Lucky for them, Joseph reiterated his forgiveness. He did not blame them for his misfortune. However, understanding the source of their folly can teach us much about why families often fall apart after a loved one dies.
There are two Midrashim (ancient stories) that point to the genesis of the brother’s paranoia. In one account, our Rabbis imagine that Joseph used to dine with his brothers and father. But after his father’s death, Joseph stopped inviting his siblings over for dinner. In their mind, Joseph was angry. He had only include them because he knew it would mean something to his father, but without Jacob holding the family together, the bond dissolved and Joseph stopped caring for them. However, the Midrash explains, Joseph really stopped inviting them to dinner because he had always felt uncomfortable with his role in the family. Because his father favored him, Joseph was usually seated higher than his brothers. When Jacob died he was left with a decision: he could continue to sit in his usual place, thus owning his father’s bad decision to favor him or he could switch seat, breaking with tradition and implicitly judging Jacob’s judgement. Stuck between two impossible alternatives, he stopped hosting dinners (B'reishit Rabbah 100:8).
The second story is perhaps more tragic (and poignant). As they were returning from burying their father, the brothers noticed that Joseph had turned off the road. Incidentally, they had been walking by the pit in which Joseph’s brothers had cast him. Worrying that going to the site of his trauma would cause him anger and harden his heart toward them, they panicked. Yet, like with the dinner party, they underestimated Joseph. Joseph did not go toward the pit to relive the tragedy. Instead, he visited the site to offer a blessing. It was because of that pit that Joseph found himself in Egypt and rose to the heights of power. The pit had become for him less a source of anger than a wellspring of thanksgiving. He had gone there to praise God for his fortune (Tanchuma, Va-y'chi 17).
Joseph’s brothers teach us that in the tumult after a loss, it is easy to mistake and misjudge the actions and motives of others. If only they knew that throughout his father’s sickness and moving forward from his death, Joseph acted consistently with dignity and integrity. In fact, many commentators assume that not only did Jacob not ask his Joseph to forgive his brothers (as they had told him he had), but that Jacob didn’t even know that his sons had sinned in the first place.
Nachmanides wrote in his commentary (on Genesis 45:7) that Jacob went to his grave thinking that s son's were innocent and Joseph had simply become lost in the fields before being sold into slavery. Though Joseph had the opportunity, he never told his father the full story of his brothers’ sin. Another Midrash picks up on the peculiar fact that Joseph does not visit his father alone in his final days. In fact, our Rabbis tell us, Joseph went out of his way to make sure that someone always accompanied him on his visits. If he was always with someone, they would assure that his father could never directly ask him what happened with his brothers and he never would not be forced to either lie or condemn them (Pesikta Rabbati 3).
Tragedy facilitates anxiety. Death promotes dread. In the face of the insurmountable strain of losing their father, Joseph’s brothers chose to see his actions through the veil of fear rather than through a lens of love. Every one of Joseph’s decisions was intended to protect and guard the emotional, physical, and spiritual well being of his family. Yet, rather than seeing his deeds as virtuous and trusting his motives they assumed the worst.
Perhaps if we recognize their folly we might catch ourselves when we too let our unease cloud our compassion. Suspicion is barely ever an avenue to truth. Joseph teaches us that when we could go either way, it’s always a good idea to start by giving others the benefit of the doubt.