His Brother’s Keeper


Candlelighting: Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:08 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 44:18-47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Havdalah: 5:09 p.m.

“And when [Jacob] saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, then the spirit of Jacob … came back to life”
[Genesis 45:27].

At the conclusion of last week’s portion it seemed as though the glorious family of Abraham was about to implode. Sibling jealousy, hatred and deception threatened its dissolution even before the 12 sons of Jacob could begin to develop into the nation Israel. Now, in our poignantly compelling portion of Vayigash, unexpectedly, the deceptions are unmasked and the dysfunctional personalities are transformed by repentance, forgiveness and love. What are the necessary steps leading to this remarkable familial reunion?

The Bible opens with the egregious sin of Cain murdering his brother Abel, apparently due to jealousy, His weak defense, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [Gen. 4:9] is answered affirmatively by the Bible in the example of Abraham, who wages a successful war against the four kings who capture his nephew Lot, and who even argues valiantly against God not to destroy Sodom if there are a significant number of innocent people within the city. We are also given countless commandments that teach that we must all see ourselves as our brother’s keepers, that we are all siblings under one God, and we must therefore love and protect each other.

Abraham passes the baton of leadership to Isaac, the son he bore with Sarah, and Rebecca convinces Isaac that in the next generation the blessings of the first-born must be granted to Jacob, the more deserving of the twins. It is now Jacob’s turn to choose the heir apparent to the Abrahamic legacy — and he is blessed with twelve sons.

Joseph is beautiful of appearance, brilliantly precocious of mind, but at a tender age is already having dreams of personal grandeur and dominion over his brothers, hardly traits that would endear him to his siblings. He is also the obvious favorite of his father. When Jacob bestows upon Joseph the special tunic, symbol of tribal leadership, the brothers are overcome with jealousy, convinced that Joseph’s hankering after agricultural Egypt and cosmic adulation [his two dreams] disqualify him completely.

Father Jacob seems to be unaware of the internal hatred created by his blatant favoritism and Joseph’s arrogance; he sends Joseph as his “agent” to look after the welfare of his brothers” [Gen. 37:14], a fitting task for the leader of the tribe. The brothers, aware that Joseph sees them not as his beloved siblings whom he must protect but rather as lowly servants whom he is destined to dominate (they bow down to him in the dream), seek to kill him. The most respected brother, Judah, convinces the others to at least derive benefit by selling Joseph as a slave, even as Judah reminds them that Joseph “is their brother, part of their very flesh” [Gen. 37:27]. Sadly, his suggestion defies that brotherly description. Judah continues to make light of the brotherly responsibility expressed by the yibum ritual when he refuses to give his youngest son Shelah in marriage to his dead brother’s wife Tamar [Gen. 38:11].

Jacob spends more than two decades in mourning for Joseph, his lost heir, and in suppressing his suspicions that his other sons were responsible for that loss. However, when the brothers return with the report that Joseph is indeed alive and grand vizier of Egypt, Jacob “looks at the wagons which Joseph had sent to transport him,” and he has an epiphany.

Rashi explains that the last Torah subject Jacob and Joseph had studied together before Joseph’s disappearance was that of the “broken-necked heifer,” the sacrifice brought by the elders of the community when an unsolved murder had occurred. (In Hebrew, agalah means wagon and eglah means heifer.) The elders had to give such an offering because they had to take ministerial responsibility for the conditions of poverty and insufficient social services that generally lead to such crimes [Deut. 21:7 and Sotah 45b]. I believe that Rashi (based on Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 94:3) is saying that, at that moment, Jacob realized that he could no longer blame the brothers nor Joseph for his beloved son’s tragic disappearance; he, Jacob, the elder of his family-community, had to forgive his children and accept responsibility for his having erred in in his blatant favoritism.

Judah, who must assume legal responsibility for the sale of Joseph and subsequent cover-up before Jacob, demonstrates that he has learned his lesson when he takes protective sibling responsibility for Benjamin (Rachel’s second son and Joseph’s brother) and offers himself as slave in Benjamin’s stead before the grand vizier [Gen. 44:33-34]. Moreover, he demonstrates his ability to “recognize his brother” Joseph even under the Egyptian garb and Egyptian demeanor of the grand vizier.

And Joseph has learned that the bearer of the Abrahamic legacy was not born to rule, but rather to serve God in His ultimate plan for this covenantal family. Even after his dreams have been realized, he forgives his brothers, explaining that it was God who brought him to Egypt in order to save the family from starvation in Canaan [Gen. 45:5].

Now that repentance and forgiveness have been expressed, the healing and rapprochement can begin.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.