Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Sense of Guilt

At the end of the Book of Genesis, when Jacob passes away, his twelve sons journey together from Egypt to the Land of Israel to bury their father and then return to Egypt. After describing the funeral procession and burial, the Torah states: “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?!” (50:15). This is a strange question since Joseph had already assured them that he had forgiven them for selling him to the Ishmaelites, and he and his brothers had been living peaceably in Egypt for some time.

If one looks at this verse from the perspective of modern psychology, one might wonder if the brothers, after burying their father, were not experiencing a kind of unresolved guilt. The text itself shows no evidence that Joseph had demonstrated any change in his attitude toward them, and yet this was the issue that gnawed at them upon returning from the burial of their father.

According to the Midrash, Joseph did change his behavior toward them, but not from anger. The brothers worried that the kindness that Joseph had shown them while Jacob was still alive was only for their father’s sake. Apparently, according to the Midrash, after Jacob’s funeral, Joseph stopped inviting them to dine at his table. Joseph, according to the Midrash, did so because when their father was alive Jacob had assigned the seating, placing Joseph ahead of both Reuben (the first born) and Judah (the proven leader). Now that their father was not there, Joseph felt uncomfortable about inviting them to sit beneath him (which would have been the only politically correct choice).

In reaction to their fear that Joseph would be vengeful, the brothers sent a message to Joseph reiterating their repentance. In turn, Joseph repeated not only his forgiveness, but his firm belief that everything that had occurred had been part of a much larger Divine plan.

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