October 31, 2020 |

The Kindness of Yoseph

I've never understood the title of the Broadway play "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat". First, the story is about Joseph, his father and his brothers, not Joseph and the coat. That may be nitpicky. It also might be nitpicky to ask why they called it a technicolor coat (which refers to a technical process of splitting light into colors on film) rather than a multi-color coat, although I guess technicolor sounds pretty cool. Last, the coat itself is, in fact, very real and has nothing to do with the dreams. I don't even now what a dreamcoat is, but is sounds like something the proverbial emperor might wear.

Be that as it may, it's a great story and it comes to an end in this week's Torah portion. It is note-worthy that for all the sordid behavior that goes on at the beginning, the end evinces the best and most noble of humanity.

The drama begins with bad behavior all around. Yoseph's father (Ya'akov ) favors Yoseph over all his brothers, causing resentment and jealousy from his brothers. The Talmud and the Halachic codes codify - from the disastrous consequences of Ya'akov's favoritism - that it is forbidden for a parent to blatantly favor one child over another. Yoseph's brothers act even worse, considering fratricide before finally showing 'mercy' and throwing Yoseph in a pit from whence he is sold down to Egypt as a slave. Moreover, they keep the story of their treachery a secret, heaping deceit upon their crime. Joseph himself is not painted in a pretty light, for he is vain and arrogant, and sets himself up as the moral guardian of his brothers, tattle-taling back to his father whenever they did wrong. Whoever is to blame, there is enough to go around and everyone suffers accordingly.

But on the other side of the divide, Yoseph provides an explanation for the drama. It was always God's plan for Yoseph to be in Egypt so that he could one day provide for his brothers and his father during the great famine. There is no further need for suffering, blame or guilt. All of that is in the past. It is only important to know that this was God's will. This is a paraphrase of Yoseph's comments in Genesis 44:5-8, when he - as viceroy of Egypt -- finally reveals himself as their long-lost brother.

Another explanation for Yoseph's largesse is that he is convinced that the brothers have already done teshuva, repentance. In their responsible and perhaps heroic defense of Binyamin (Yoseph's little brother), they show that they are no longer the cruel manipulators they once were. Their actions in Egypt repudiate their past behavior.

The difference between these two answers is whether or not the brothers earned Yoseph's kindness. In the first answer, Yoseph forgives them because they were unwitting pawns in God's plan. This does not change the fact that their behavior was unacceptable and criminal, only that - despite it all - they must unite as a family and accept God's will. In the second answer, Yoseph forgives them because they deserve to be forgiven.

It seems to me, though, that Yoseph does them an additional kindness. He goes above and beyond merely helping them or forgiving them. What he does is keep their secret:

When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he says,

"I am Yoseph! Is my father still alive?" (45:3)

and his brothers are so surprised and ashamed that they are unable to pick their chins up off the floor to answer him. In the following verse, he instructs them to "come close" and he says to them again:

"I am Yoseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt." (45:4)

What is the need for the repetition? It is tempting to say that he started over because his brothers were so shocked the first time. But if we look closely, we can see an important distinction between the two pronouncements: the second time he mentions the crime of selling him down to Egypt.

This is how one of the Tosafists (France/Germany 13th c) explains this:

"'Come close to me', and they came close" - the homiletic explanation is that although he had already said "remove everyone from before me" (see 45:1), the Egyptians were standing outside and inclining their ears to listen to what they were saying. Therefore, when he said 'I am Yoseph! Is my father still alive?," he did not care if they listened. But when he wanted to say "who sold me to Egypt", he didn't want them to hear. For he intended to settle his brothers in Egypt, and perhaps when they [Egyptians] heard that they [brothers] had sold their brother to Egypt, they would think: "they are very bad men to sell even their own brother; what might they do to us if they live among us?" Therefore, he said "come close" and I will tell it you secretly. Another explanation: In the beginning, when he said "I am Yoseph", he did not want to mention the sale because of Binyamin his brother, that he should not become ashamed of them and perhaps even tell his father. So, he pulled them to one side and said "come close to me" , separating them from Binyamin and then said "I am Yoseph your brother who you sold to Egypt."

According to this Tosafist, Yoseph was committed to keeping his brother's crime an absolute secret. Only Yoseph and ten of his brothers know about the sale. Ya'akov doesn't know about it. Binyamin doesn't know about it. The Egyptians don't know about it. Even the Midianite salesman who sold him didn't know who he was when they sold him! (see S'forno) Even if he forgave them, to keep their sin a secret from the world shows a tremendous and impressive sensitivity to them and a total disregard for his own feelings. How often must he have wanted to shout it out to the world? Yoseph's silence is a silence of saintliness.

It is apparent from here that Yoseph and his brothers never share the dirty deed with the Egyptian newspapers and never tell Pharoh. But I think that their silence goes one more dramatic step forward. Read carefully the comment of the Ramban:

"It seems to me, by way of p'shat, that Ya'akov was never told his whole life that the brothers sold Yoseph, but thought that he had been wandering in the scrub and someone found him, took him and sold him to Egypt. For his brothers did not want to tell him their sin, for they were afraid that he would be angry and curse them as he would curse Re'uven, Shim'on and Levi. And Yoseph, with his good character, did not want to tell him..." (45:27)

Ramban's proof that Yoseph never told his father is a sad one: even after all of Yoseph's abundant kindness, the brothers are still afraid of his retribution. When Ya'akov dies, they send a messenger to Yoseph, saying:

"Your father commanded before his death as follows: "say thus to Yoseph: Please, forgive the crime of your brothers and their sin, even though they did evil to you, now forgive the crimes of the servants of the God of your father." (50:16-17)

This message makes Ya'akov cry, for it an outright and desperate lie. (The Talmud pardons them this lie (Yevamot 65b), for it was for the sake of shalom). Yoseph knows that his father would have delivered the message personally on his deathbed if it were true.

But Ya'akov could never have instructed Yoseph to forgive his brothers for a more basic and compelling reason: he never knew that they had sinned!!

Yoseph most likely at great personal cost - withheld the information from his dear father. Can you imagine how desperately Ya'akov must have wanted to hear the story of how his beloved son was torn away from him for 22 years!!!

Perhaps Ya'akov knew that there was some part of the story that was missing. Perhaps even his prophetic powers allowed him an inkling of it. But the kindness of Yoseph was that he never used this information to hurt his brothers, not even after all they did to him. He never wanted to become the favorite son again.

In conclusion, we learn that there must be some good reason to air our dirty laundry. There is no point in pointing out the shortcomings and flaws of our fellow Jews if it will only provide ammunition for the anti-semites or create a chillul hashem, a desecration of God's name. There is no reason to speak out the truth - even if it's true! - if it will only turn brother against brother and parent against child.

May our words and our lack of words always serve to bring about peace and love between us and our fellow Jews. Shabbat shalom!

For further study: In Gen. 45:5, I quoted the Tosafists. Ramban says essentially the same thing - that the Egyptians would grow suspicious of the brothers if they heard about how they sold Yoseph - but he adds one last thing at the end that changes the calculus considerable: "...and also, they [Egyptians] would no longer believe Yoseph." What do you think the significance of this change is?


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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