Vayechi: Gracious But Honest
One of the most important and underrated traits of leadership is graciousness. Gracious people have been humbled by life and grasp the vulnerability of the human spirit. As life has exposed their own weaknesses, gracious people are more kind and considerate to others. They aren’t judgmental but accepting. They share their spirit freely with those in need. This generosity of spirit allows them to easily forgive. The strongest indicator of graciousness is forgiveness toward others.
We would expect graciousness from Yosef. He has been consistently humbled by life and at this stage he appreciates how fragile human experience can be. Expecting this graciousness, we assume that Yosef would amiably accept his brother’s apologies. After Ya'akov's death, Yosef's brothers hesitantly approach him, nervous that he will avenge their grievous crimes. No longer restrained by an aging father, Yosef is now free to retaliate for their past felony. The brothers are so terrified of possible reprisal that they even lie about their deceased father's wishes. Putting words into Ya’akov’s mouth, they claim that their father had instructed Yosef against any possible revenge. Presumably, Yosef easily detects this transparent lie; had Ya'akov actually interfered in this messy situation he would have spoken directly with Yosef. This weak attempt at a lie merely demonstrates how desperate the anxious brothers are.
Here is Yosef’s grand opportunity to rise above pettiness and vengeance and graciously forgive his brothers and embrace them. Yosef has everything to gain and nothing to lose. The entire world beckons to his whim. His position in Egypt is secure. He is clearly the new patriarch of the family. This should be an easy decision.
Strangely, Yosef doesn’t warmly embrace his brothers, nor does he courteously accept their apology. Initially, he responds in a manner which is part reassuring and part threatening: “Am I in place of G-d?”. One the one hand this phrase implies that he will not "take matters into his own hands" and he will not play the role of G-d. This certainly comforts his brothers. However, this phrase also implies that Yosef does possess the authority to mete out justice and punish their misdeeds. A more polite acceptance of their apology should not include off-handed references to his own authority – even the type of authority he doesn’t plan on wielding. The acceptance of an apology should not even allude to the potential of retribution.
Yosef's next comments are even more perplexing: he reminds them of their malicious intentions: “Hashem has converted your cruelty into a favorable outcome, allowing me to support the entire world.” This second “line” accentuates their crime while highlighting Yosef’s phenomenal success. This is not the “textbook way” to graciously accept an apology. We would more sooner expect humility, welcoming language, and attempts to "play down" the insult. We would expect Yosef to minimize the crime rather than emphasize the pain. Given how desperate the brothers are, Yosef’s disguised comments seem insensitive. Ultimately, Yosef does assure them that he will continue to care for them and the scene ends with Yosef consoling his fearful brothers. However, Yosef’s initial response to their heartfelt apology doesn’t feel gracious.
Evidently, as important as graciousness may be, it isn’t the only value and isn’t the sole consideration when accepting an apology. Evidently, frank and candid communication is also valuable, and Yosef doesn’t withhold his true feelings, merely to be tactful and sensitive. A full embrace of his brother's apology is definitely more sensitive in the short term but may be disadvantageous in the long term. Whitewashing the crime may not be the best approach.
Apologies aren’t just an opportunity to express regret, they should also enable catharsis. People of moral conscience are weighted down by guilt and remorse. Without facing our guilt and rinsing our conscience, we can become emotionally overwhelmed. Apologies help us confront our misdeeds and move on from otherwise unbearable guilt.
Earlier in the story, as they stood accused by Yosef masquerading as an Egyptian king, the brothers already began to trace their predicament to their horrific crime of kidnapping. This vital process of facing their guilt and "moving on" can only be completed if they fully appreciate the suffering they inflicted upon Yosef. Lost in all the excitement of discovering Yosef and relocating to Egypt is the incredible suffering they caused. Thorough catharsis demands confronting the full impact of their conspiracy. Yosef is happy to accept their apology, but his candor also affords them an opportunity to process their sin. If their guilt remains unaddressed it will fester and create continued anxiety and emotional unrest. As much as they seek Yosef’s graciousness, they also deeply need his honesty.
In addition to aiding their catharsis, Yosef’s honesty is an initial step toward rebuilding their deeply fractured relationship. The trauma of his kidnapping, as well as their living apart for twenty years, has ruptured communication between the brothers. Communication builds trust and trusts is the foundation of healthy relationships. It is heartbreaking but not surprising to see how distrustful the brothers have become. The midrash narrates a sorrowful story: after burying Ya'akov, Yosef returned to Shechem to revisit “the pit” and the scene of his abduction. Perhaps he wanted closure for his own trauma. To no one's surprise, this innocent personal trip alarmed the brothers. Perhaps, they worried, Yosef was still angry and had returned to the scene of the crime to plot his revenge. Direct communication could easily have alleviated any suspicions but, sadly, it doesn’t exist. Innocent personal decisions stoke treacherous conspiracy theories. Where there is no trust there is no relationship.
The first step toward rebuilding this relationship is honest and hard communication. It is imperative for Yosef to relay his insult. As we would say he must "get everything off of his chest." Until he does, the anxious brothers will always wonder what deeper feelings he is harboring and trust will never develop. A gracious acceptance of their apology without articulating the deep hurt will leave many unanswered questions and will not build bridges of communication. For the wound to heal, Yosef must rip off the band-aid. It may be painful, but this is the only way the wounds can begin to heal. The scene ends with Yosef "speaking to their hearts" (Vayidaber al libam) as the lines of communication have been restored. Trust can now be rebuilt and the relationship rehabilitated.
Life is complex and places us into complicated interpersonal situations. Graciousness demands that we exhibit mercy, humility and generosity of spirit toward those who insult or harm us. However, sometimes, along with our graciousness, we do better by also sharing our honesty and our authentic feelings, rather than concealing our hurt with cordiality and geniality.