By Reb David
From history’s mythic dawn, civilization grappled with humanity’s first question that Cain asked with a haunting, guilty conscience: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In this week’s Torah portion (Vayigash), Joseph gives us a resounding answer: “Yes.”
Now Egypt’s civil ruler, Joseph reveals himself to his starving brothers who stand before him begging for food. Joseph assures them that though the brothers acted criminally by selling Joseph into slavery, God redeemed their crime for good: “God sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Gen. 45:7).
What incredible spiritual power and courage Joseph must have had, to not only forgive his brothers’ crime but also vest in it divine grace and allow himself to save his captors!
In accepting the task to keep his brothers, Joseph suspended a cycle of sibling violence that traced back to Creation. Cain slew Abel in jealous rage. Noah’s generation was too violent to continue. Isaac and Ishmael battled. Jacob and Esau battled. Joseph’s 10 older brothers attacked him and sold him into slavery. Generation after generation, Torah’s first 50 chapters are full of grief within the primordial Jewish family and, by extension, the human family.
Finally, Joseph stops this vicious cycle. To be sure, jealousy wasn’t forever banished. Miriam would be jealous of her brother Moses’ direct connection to God (Num. 12:1-3), and jealousy is such a temptation that it appears in the Ten Commandments: “Do not covet” (Ex. 20:17). Still, Joseph’s forgiveness was a tikkun — a spiritual, karmic correction — to halt the self-reinforcing cycle of jealousy, retribution and fear. Where Cain pejoratively asked if he was his brother’s keeper, we hear Joseph’s emphatic answer: “Yes.”
As for Joseph, so for us. No matter how we perceive our past, no matter whom we blame for our hurts, we are still our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Even more apt, it was precisely because Joseph received cruelty and hurt that he was so keenly able to care for others. Likewise, each of our past hurts can become a ladder to raise us into compassion and caring for others.
To be sure, being our siblings’ keeper doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be victimized. Joseph could draw closer to his brothers because Joseph experienced much over the years to learn how to forgive, and also because the years changed his brothers. Even so, Joseph settled his brothers at a distance — in Egypt’s choicest land but not in Joseph’s own home. We learn that where safe reconciliation is possible, we do ourselves, each other and the world much good by overcoming history’s hurdles and drawing close. Where safe reconciliation is not fully possible, we still can be our siblings’ keepers in a sense — in prayer, by doing our own inner work to quell anger and hurt, by hoping for the day that closer proximity becomes possible, and by doing what we can to bring that day to fruition.
No surprise that Joseph’s Hebrew name shares a root with “abundance.” It is by replacing hurt with help, and truly being our siblings’ keepers as much as safely possible, that we channel abundance into a world too often bereft by spiritual famine. Joseph was a prince for this principle. So may we be as well.