This week’s parsha includes Yaakov’s blessings and curses on his sons; daughter Dinah is completely absent, and that probably shouldn’t surprise us. And, though some sons receive blessings and some receive rebukes, Jacob never tells them that he loves them. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by that, either, given that we know that our ancestors are unlikely to win any parenting contests. And there is also something else missing here, which is that, no matter how harsh the curses, Jacob never mentions the brothers selling Joseph into slavery. What might that tell us? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that he didn’t know. But it’s also probably true that the brothers had no way of knowing whether Joseph had told his father what his older brothers had done to him. That uncertainty led the brothers to fear Joseph’s retribution, a retribution for which Jacob’s death might clear the way.
In fear, then, after Jacob’s death, the brothers cautiously approached Joseph. Remember that Joseph is the second most powerful person in Egypt; they had good reason to fear him! And, knowing what their actions had cost Joseph and Jacob, perhaps they recognized that they were deserving of a harsh punishment. With that in mind, they say to Joseph:
“Your father commanded [us] just before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “Please forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you.
Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’”
And following that statement, Joseph wept.
We have to assume that the brothers are lying. Scholars have wondered whether this is another moment in the Torah where a lie might be justified for the sake of shalom h’beit, peace in the household. Much as God lies to Abraham about why Sarah laughed, here perhaps the brothers’ lie is a way for them to admit responsibility but also to ask once again for forgiveness. And Joseph weeps—why? It seems likely that he weeps because he realizes that his brothers have not made the ethical or spiritual progress that he himself has made. They are still in the mindset of small children, expecting to be scolded for a wrongdoing.
It’s also possible that Joseph cries because he can’t help but wonder if his father really believed that he would harshly punish his brothers, that he was waiting for his death for just that purpose. It appears that, no matter what the reason for his tears, the brothers of Joseph will never become the tzaddikim he had hoped they would become. And his father appears to be a tired, demoralized old man. Joseph has endured profound suffering, and Jacob has been robbed of years and years of time with his beloved son. But it is Joseph and Joseph alone who fully realizes that his journey—as harsh as it might have been—was part of God’s plan. He alone has the faith to realize that God had a plan for him.