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(Following Jacob's death), Joseph's brother said: "Perhaps now Joseph will show us hatred. He will take vengeance on the evil that we plotted against him". They therefore claimed that Jacob had ordered before his death: "Tell Joseph to forgive your brother's transgressions and sins against you…" (50:16-17).
There is no record in the entire text of Jacob's commanding Joseph to forgive his brothers. Rashi brings the tradition that Joseph's brothers were anxious about Joseph's change of behavior towards them. Whilst Jacob was still alive, they were all regular guests around his table. Now, they were no longer on the invitation list. Rashi's sources suggest that in fact Jacob's will included no such order. The brothers had made the whole thing up, in order to maintain peace in the family. Even though the Torah forbids untruths, such as "Keep away from telling lies" (Ex. 23:7) and even within the Ten Commandments: "Do not testify falsely" (Ex. 20:13), the brothers judged that keeping the peace was more important than keeping to the raw truth. And the Torah accepted their judgment in this case, as it did not raise the issue of their having invented a story.
However, it may be additionally argued that the brother's inventing a story was absolutely necessary in the situation. In many families - today very much included - extended family life and family traditions centers around one individual. That is very often the scenario of the family patriarch being surrounded by his descendants, even to the fourth and fifth generation. After he or she has died, the family can be in danger of disintegrating, of falling apart. That is not because of any unseemly squabbles over the inheritance, or any family dispute, but because of the sudden change in routines. The extended family may be compared to a large round tent, with a high central pole in the middle. Take that pole away and the fabric sinks towards the ground. Family routines change - day-to-day living takes precedence and parts of the extended family begin to drift apart and move in different directions.
That indicates that if the family is to stay together, it needs to reevaluate its ways of doing so. New strains have been put on it, the old foci have vanished and something new must be created. The family will not merely drift into continuity. Family members need to reassess their relationships with one another and come to a new system of contacts with each other.
That was the brothers' fear. As a consequence of Jacob's death, the brothers saw evidence of the normal social forces that cause traditions and indeed families to fall apart. In such an atmosphere, the old rivalries and jealousies - the subjects of the previous parashiot - would reassert themselves. The brothers evaluated the situation and brought their deceased father into the picture to give peace-making the necessary authority. A son may do a great deal for his father during his lifetime - he often does even more after his death, in enhancing his memory.
It was time to directly face past animosities before they rose to the surface. The brothers understood that that is what Jacob would have instructed in the circumstances, because that is what he always wanted…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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