One of the most outstanding moments in the entire Torah is the moment in this week’s parasha when Joseph articulates his forgiveness to his brothers. It seems so noble and perhaps too lofty. What was the inner thinking that brought Joseph to such a righteous declaration? This Midrash fills in some blanks.
What are the various possibilities about why Joseph was so magnanimous?
Do these reasons enhance our opinion of Joseph or do they make him more human?
How do you understand the end of the Midrash?
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis C:9
9. AND JOSEPH SAID UNTO THEM:... AND AS FOR YOU, YE MEANT EVIL AGAINST ME... NOW THEREFORE FEAR YE NOT... AND HE SPAKE TO THEIR HEART (L, 19 f.).
Can then a man speak to the heart? It means, however, that he spoke words which comfort the heart.
Ye have been likened to the dust of the earth, he told them, and who can exterminate the dust of the earth?
Ye have been likened to the beasts of thefield, and who can exterminate the beasts of the field?
Ye have been likened to the stars, and who can exterminate the stars?
Ten stars wished to destroy one star, but could not prevail against it: can I then change the natural order of the world that one star should destroy twelve stars? For these twelve stars correspond to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve constellations of the heavens.
R. Simlai said: He assured them: Ye are the body and I am the head, as it says, Let the blessing come upon the head, Joseph (Deut. XXXIII, 16): if the body is removed, of what use is the head?
Moreover, before ye came down hither I was called a slave, but after ye came down hither I was able to prove my [free] birth; this being so, would I actually slay you!
Further, if I slew you people would say, ‘This man cannot be trusted, for if he did not keep faith with his brethren, with whom will he keep faith?’
Further they would say, ‘They were not his brethren but a band of young men whom he saw and called his brethren,’ the proof being that eventually he brought a false accusation against them and slew them.
Again, shall I become my father's opponent, my father begetting and I burying; or shall I become an opponent of God, God blessing while I diminish!
Hence it says, AND HE COMFORTED THEM.
Now does this not furnish an argument: If Joseph could thus comfort the tribal ancestors by speaking soothing words to them, how much the more when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to comfort Jerusalem!
Thus it says, Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God (Isa. XL, 1).
Bereshith Rabbah Genesis XCIV:5
5. AND ISRAEL TOOK HIS JOURNEY WITH ALL THAT HE HAD AND CAME TO BEER-SHEBA, AND OFFERED SACRIFICES UNTO THE GOD OF HIS FATHER ISAAC (46:1).
R. Joshua b. Levi said: I went round to all the masters of Haggadah in the south asking them to tell me the meaning of this verse, but they did not elucidate it for me, until I stood with Judah b. Pedayah, the nephew of Ben Hakappar, who explained to me: When a teacher and his disciple are walking in the way, you first greet the disciple and then the teacher.
R. Huna said: When R. Joshua b. Levi came to Tiberias he asked R. Johanan and Resh Lakish about it. R. Johanan said: The reason is because a man owes more honor to his father than to his grandfather. Resh Lakish said: He offered sacrifices for the covenant with the tribal ancestors.
Bar Kappara and R. Jose b. Patros discussed this. One of them said, Jacob declared: As my father was eager for his food, so am I eager for my food. The other explained it: As my father made a distinction between his sons, so am I making a distinction among my sons. But then on second thoughts I declared, says Jacob: My father had the care of but one soul whereas I have the care of seventy souls.
R. Judan made two comments, and R. Berekiah made two comments.
R. Judan said: Jacob declared, My father blessed me with five blessings, and the Holy One, blessed be He, correspondingly appeared five times to me and blessed me. R. Judan made another comment: Jacob declared, I thought that He would permit me the actual enjoyment of those blessings. What were those blessings? Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee but I now see that this applies to Joseph.
R. Berekiah made two observations: The Holy One, blessed be He, never unites His name with a living person save with those who are experiencing suffering, and Isaac indeed did experience suffering. The Rabbis said: We look upon him as though his ashes were heaped in a pile on the altar.
This Midrash centers on the question of why would Yaacov offer sacrifices to the God of his Father Yischak and not to the God of his grandfather Avraham as well?
I am very taken with the framework of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi asking around for an answer to this question. Of course, I continue to be mystified with the notion of the ashes of Isaac – here is another Midrash that makes reference to the phenomenon of "Isaac’s Ashes" – though we know that he was not sacrificed – how do you understand that?
More questions for conversation.
How do the answers compare?
Which one makes the most sense to you?
Why do you think Rashi selects the answer of Rabbi Johanan?