With death of their father Yaakov, Yosef’s brothers fear that despite all of Yosef’s assurances to the contrary, he would now exact revenge from them for having sold him into slavery. They even go so far as to fabricate a report about Yaakov’s wishes that he expressed before his death. They instruct a messenger to tell Yosef that Yaakov had given an explicit order that Yosef forgive his brothers. Abarbanel points out that this completely fabricated order had two dimensions. First, Yosef should forgive them because of the brotherly connection between them. Secondly, he should forgive them because they are the “servants of your father’s G-d.” The brothers were taking no chances. If he would not forgive them due to the family connection, perhaps he would forgive them since they were ‘brothers in faith’, sharing the same unique religious values and beliefs, the beliefs handed down to them from Yaakov. With their father’s death they express a deep concern about their fate: “Perhaps Yosef will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.”
Abarbanel, however, in a close analysis of the literal meaning of the verse, reveals a completely different dimension of their concern. Abarbanel renders the above verse as “It should be that Yosef will nurse hatred against us and it should be that he surely will repay us all the evil that we did him.” The meaning of this astounding explanation is as follows: Now that Yaakov is dead we would prefer that he express his feelings openly rather than keeping them locked up inside. We would also prefer that he repay us with evil. Since the result of the evil that we did him was his elevation to greatness, whatever evil he does to us will be to our benefit as well. It is clear to Abarbanel that the brothers were expecting Yosef to take some form of retribution. The brothers’ reaction illustrates two important principles of Jewish thought. First of all they wanted their relationship with Yosef to be free of any doubt. If hatred and retribution were in his heart they wanted to deal with it openly. Secondly, they understood the principle of ‘measure for measure.’ They expected that their fate would exactly parallel Yosef’s.
However, as Abarbanel made clear in Parshat Vayigash, Yosef reiterated that just as he was G-d’s agent to sustain the family in Egypt, they too were G-d’s agents to bring him to Egypt in the first place. What they had done was clearly the will of G-d and they had nothing to fear. The Torah concludes the whole incident with the words, “He spoke to their hearts and they were comforted.” Commenting on this verse, Rashi gives an astoundingly different interpretation. According to Rashi, Yosef told his brothers that their fears were well-founded: he had every right to punish them. However, Yosef was afraid of the likely reaction of the Egyptians. After all, it was only the arrival in Egypt of his well-known and respected father and brothers that convinced the Egyptians that he was anything more than a lowly slave all his life. If he punished them, doubts about his origins would resurface and resentment over his powerful position would be rampant. How could a man punish his own brothers for something that had turned out so well? According to Rashi, then, how could Yosef’s words touch their hearts and comfort them? Rabbi Ephriam Wachsman of Monsey, New York offers the following amazing psychological insight to explain Rashi. Yosef knew that the brothers would always be psychologically burdened by their guilt, no matter how much they intellectually accepted that the whole series of events was the will of G-d. Therefore Yosef knew that he had to validate their feelings of guilt. This is what penetrated their hearts and comforted them. Validation of one’s guilt followed by the assurance that all is well in the end provides true closure and consolation. Perhaps this is what Abarbanel was alluding to. The brothers never lose those feelings of guilt and Yosef never tells them directly that they were guiltless, only that all’s well that ends well.