“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph hates us?’” Genesis 50:15

By Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk, December 27, 2012

In the last portion of Genesis, why does this verse begin with vayiru, they saw, just after the previous verse describes the sons burying their father Jacob? Wasn’t it obvious they knew their father was dead? The information seems unnecessary, but no word is superfluous in Torah.

Does the repetition imply a double anxiety, both at their father’s death and the loss of his protection? My teacher Rabbi Frank Hellner suggested reading it as “they were afraid” rather than “they saw”.

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg cites the Or Hachayim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar,1696-1742), who translates the phrase “lest Joseph hate us” as lu, “perhaps he will hate us”. The word lu, he says, implies a wishfulness. They unconsciously want Joseph’s anger so they can work through their guilt and suffer some way commensurate with the suffering they have caused him. They want resolution.

Rabbi Isaac in Genesis Rabbah has the brothers observing Joseph visiting the pit on the way home. A sure sign to them he is visiting old wounds. But Midrash Tanhuma suggests Joseph was there to recite a blessing of thanksgiving for how his life turned out. He wants resolution, too.

There is a profound sense in this parashah that both Joseph and his brothers are working out what happened in the past. They want and need that sense of responsibility.

This blessing for escaping a danger is similar to the second blessing for the Chanucah candles we’ve recited all week, she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh, “who performed a miracle for me in this place”. Looking back at difficult times sometimes has that effect.

Last updated: 1:15pm, December 27 2012