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[After Jacob's burial in Egypt] Joseph's brothers said: "Perhaps Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil we did to him" (50:15).
Rashi quotes the tradition that Joseph's attitude towards his brothers changed after their father's death. When Jacob was alive, they were welcome guests at Joseph's table. That was no longer the case. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observes that without parents as the focal point of the family, it is unfortunately natural for siblings to meet less often and even to drift apart. Nevertheless, they interpreted the decline in hospitality as signal of worse to come.
The Kli Yakar pays special attention to Joseph's subsequent response to his brothers: "Do not fear: I will provide food for you and your children" (50:21). The emphasis was on food. The Kli Yakar (based on Sifri Ekev 38) brings the tradition that the remaining five of the seven years of famine resumed immediately after the death of Jacob. The brothers feared that Joseph would simply let the embers of the family relationships cool down, devoting his exclusive attention to the professional duties of managing Egypt's economy and leaving his extended family to care for themselves in those very hard times.
Indeed, the death of the last key survivor of the old generation does change the status of all the members of the next generation. Whilst Jacob was alive, Joseph's brothers were 'all the sons of one man' (42:11). They were (Joseph included) sons, even though they had children and maybe grandchildren of their own. They were 'the next generation'. Once their father was no longer alive, they were no longer 'sons'. Each son had become a master of his own domain. This was reinforced by the individualized words of wisdom and blessings Jacob gave to each of his sons before his death.
Thus the feeling may well have been that Joseph was no longer their brother, but a very senior employee of Pharaoh with power to match. And their identity was not that they were bonded together with him, but they were all very different people. In short, the death of the father meant a whole change in the reality, statuses, and interrelationships within the family.
To the brothers' credit, they faced their fears assertively and proactively. Instead of keeping their fears as food for gossip, they banded together and faced Joseph squarely. They came out with it; they stated their fears clearly and openly. They thus averted a potential quarrel with much more serious consequences than the previous one. Indeed, the results of this exchange were to endure for generations. There is no record of any tribal division during the period in Egypt in the centuries between Jacob taking the Children of Israel down to Egypt and Moses leading them back to the Promised Land.
That is an important lesson for those in similar situations. The reality is that parents are not with children forever. When the children come together at the shiva, a vital topic of conversation should be the positive means for continuation of the family.
For in many families extended family life and family traditions center 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. It requires a reality check: it indicates that if the family is to stay together, it needs to reevaluate its ways of doing so. The old foci have vanished and something new has to be created. The family will not merely drift into continuity. Family members need to create a new system of contacts with each other. It was time to directly face the past animosities before they rose to the surface.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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