Parshat Vayechi: Genesis 47:28-50:26; I Kings 2:1-12.
In Vayechi, the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph comes to an end.
The most remarkable part of the story is that he forgave his brothers even though they sold him into slavery in Egypt and lied to their father, Jacob, telling him that Joseph was dead.
Upon returning to Egypt after burying their father, his brothers worried that because of Jacob’s death, Joseph would no longer deal kindly with them. The brothers bowed before Joseph, and the Torah tells us that Joseph said, “Fear not. I will sustain you and your children” (Genesis 50:21.) The next part of that verse says, “Joseph comforted them and spoke into their heart.” This phrase, vayidaber al libam, is often translated as “he spoke kindly to them.” But the Hebrew means “he spoke into their heart.”
This turn of phrase stands out to me, as it is not something that I’ve heard before; so I went to the Talmud for a better understanding. Tractate Megilah 16b:7 gives the explanation that “Rabbi Binyamin bar Yefet said that Rabbi Elazar said: ‘This teaches that he spoke to them words that are acceptable to the heart and alleviated their fears.”’ Joseph spoke to his brothers compassionately and with words they could really hear.
This is such a good lesson for us. We sometimes have to change the way we speak so that the people receiving our words can really hear them, instead of building a defense or shutting down. Joseph had to speak to his brothers in a way that cut through the deep fears they had that they would be abandoned in a foreign land and left to starve or worse. They knew how they treated Joseph, and they feared he would kill them.
Instead of seeking revenge after his father’s death, Joseph chose to love and forgive his brothers. He spoke to them with deep kindness; at once, he alleviated their fears in a way that each of them could hear. It’s remarkable that Joseph was able to exercise this forgiveness. That he was able to let go of any anger toward his brothers that would be completely understandable to hold onto, considering what they did. His ability to show this ultimate kindness says so much about his character.
After detailing the rest of Joseph’s life, this parshah comes to a close and with it the Book of Genesis. At the end of each book of Torah that we finish, we say chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, be strong and let us strengthen one another. What we learn from the end of Joseph’s life is that there is strength in vulnerability, in relying on community, in compassion and in forgiveness.
As we forge ahead in this new year, may we take after Joseph and speak to the hearts of the ones we love.
Rabbi Alicia Harris is rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.