On Yosef and His Brothers

This piece really belongs with next week’s parashah (Vayechi), but it is so beautiful that I could not resist posting it now. It is a fine example of the Maggid’s moving style.
The Torah relates that, after Yaakov’s death, Yosef made an effort to reassure his brothers that he would not harm them. The Midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni I:162):
“And he consoled them and spoke to them reassuringly [literally: spoke to their hearts]” (Bereishis 50:21). This teaches that he said to them words that penetrate the heart. “Just as ten candles could not snuff out one candle, how can one candle snuff out ten candles?” [That is, if the ten of you (not counting Binyamin) could not subdue me, how could I alone subdue the ten of you? The Midrash goes on to quote further arguments that Yosef made.] Yosef reassured his brothers with good words, and consoled them with consoling words. And when HaKadosh Baruch Hu comes to console Yerushalayim – as it is written (Yeshayah 40:2), “Speak reassuringly to Yerushalayim” – it will be all the more so. Thus it is written (ibid. 40:1): “Be consoled, be consoled My people.”
This Midrash draws a very far-flung comparison. What does it mean?
Let us first explain the double language in the passage from Yeshayah: “Be consoled, be consoled My people.” We bring out the point with an allegory.
In a certain town, there were two women whose husbands went off to a distant land. One of the men was poor, and was traveling to seek a livelihood. The other man was rich, and simply wanted to get away from his wife, whose bad disposition and constant bickering had made living with her unbearable. And so he joined the poor man in his travels.
A long time went by, during which the women heard no word of their husbands, since they were so far from home. So the women approached various traveling merchants and asked them if they knew where their husbands were. One of the merchants came forward and said: “I saw your husbands – I even spoke with them face to face. They gave me letters to give to you.” The women pleaded with the merchant to dig the letters out of his sack right away, so that they could read them and be comforted. He told them: “At the moment, my dear ladies, I do not have time to rummage around for the letters. So, for now, just be happy with the news and go home. Come back to me tomorrow and I will give you the letters then.”
The rich man’s wife was very happy with this answer, and went home without saying another word. But the poor man’s wife did not budge, and she begged the merchant relentlessly to look for her letter and give it to her right then and there. The merchant asked: “Why are you so much more insistent about getting your letter than your neighbor, who just rejoiced over the good news and went home? Why are you pestering me so much that I feel I am about to choke? I told you already that when I get the chance I will dig out the letter for you.”
The poor man’s wife replied bitterly: “There is a big difference between me and my neighbor. She sits home comfortably and free of troubles, for she is wealthy. Her husband went off simply because of some quarrels she had with him, and her only worry was that he might never come back home, leaving her a virtual widow for the rest of her life. She had no idea whether his rage would quiet down. But now she knows that her husband asked you to bring her a letter to comfort her, and there is no greater solace than that. It is enough for her to know that her husband still loves her and will eventually return to her. Reading the letter is unimportant.
“But I am totally destitute and broken. I sit home and hope that Hashem will grant my husband a livelihood so that I, too, can provide for my family, and we need no longer go hungry. So how can the letter console me if I haven’t read it yet? I have no idea yet whether my husband found work or not. And so I am dying to see what the letter says. I cannot hold myself back – I cannot wait.”
We, the Bnei Yisrael, are like the rich man’s wife in this story. Our only worry and cause for lament is the fear that Hashem has abandoned us forever and will never again reconcile with us – far be it – as the gentiles claim in the harsh taunts they cast at us. And so it is enough for us to know that HaKadosh Baruch Hu feels pain over our pain, and sent the Yeshayah HaNavi to console us. There is no greater solace than knowing that Hashem has not ceased to feel compassion for us and continues to cherish us. We do not need to hear the consolatory message itself.
This is the idea behind Yeshayah’s prophecy of consolation (Yeshayah 40:1): “‘Be consoled, be consoled My people,’ says your God.” Yeshayah tells us that we should be consoled by the very fact that Hashem sent him to console us. This consolation should suffice. We need no longer be stricken with fear when faced with the shaming taunts of those who revile us.
Yosef’s consolation to his brothers is based on the same idea. In truth, the arguments that Yosef put forward to console his brothers were in themselves insufficient to dispel their great fear that he would take revenge on them. Consider Yosef’s first argument: “Just as ten candles could not snuff out one candle, how can one candle snuff out ten candles?” The logic of this argument is flawed, for Hashem has the power to grant victory to whoever He wants, regardless of the numbers. Thus, Hashem could easily have arranged for Yosef to subdue his brothers, especially since Yosef –as Viceroy of Egypt –had guards at his immediate disposal. Yosef’s other arguments were just as weak. Nothing that Yosef said amounted to solid reassurance. What really reassured Yosef’s brothers was the simple fact the Yosef made such an effort to console and reassure them. From this they saw that Yosef loved them wholeheartedly, and was concerned over their suffering. They had no need to concern themselves with the content of Yosef’s consolatory arguments.
This is the idea behind the double language in the verse describing Yosef’s consolation: “And he consoled them and spoke to them reassuringly.” Yosef’s great effort to reassure his brothers was in itself a full consolation.
We can now easily grasp the logic of the Midrash that we began with. Just as Yosef’s brothers were consoled by the simple fact that Yosef undertook to console them, all the more so we are consoled by Yeshayah’s message that Hashem has undertaken to console us. This alone is enough to ease our sorrow.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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