We read in Parashat Vayechi of Yosef’s brothers’ concerns after Yaakov’s passing that Yosef would now seek to exact revenge for the crime they committed against him. Yosef reassured his brothers that he had no such plans and was committed to continue supporting them in Egypt. The Torah said, “He comforted them and spoke to their heart” (50:21).
Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains this to mean that Yosef spoke to them “words which are acceptable to the heart” – that is, words of comfort that would put their worries to rest. Specifically, Rashi writes, Yosef explained to his brothers that he could not kill them, because of the impression this would give the Egyptians. If Yosef would kill his brothers, people would accuse Yosef of having presented a random group of distinguished-looking men as his brothers in order to prove that he was not born into the slave class. Once he no longer needed them, the accusers would charge, he just killed them. After all, Yosef said, “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” If he would kill his brothers, the Egyptians would reach the conclusion that they were not really his brothers, because people do not kill their brothers.
Later writers noted the glaring irony in the Midrash’s comments. As Yosef tries to reassure his brothers that he does not seek to avenge their crime, his concluding remark is, “Yesh lekha ach she-horeig et echav” – “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” This statement must have sounded to the brothers as a scathing condemnation of their attempt to kill Yosef. In essence, Yosef here tells his brothers that he could not kill them because a person does not kill his brothers – despite the fact that this is precisely what they nearly did. How could Chazal depict Yosef as communicating these words to his brothers, when the Torah explicitly tells that Yosef spoke to them words of comfort and reassurance?
It appears that even as Yosef tried reassuring his brothers, he could not abstain from at least subtly emphasizing the gravity of their crime. Although he wanted them to feel secure and at ease, and to that end he emphasized that God orchestrated the events for the best (50:20), nevertheless, he found it necessary to subtly remind them of what a grievous act they committed against him.
Furthermore, it is possible that Chazal here do not mean that Yosef actually spoke these words to his brothers, but were rather expressing their own perspective by placing these words in Yosef’s mouth. This verse marks the final conclusion of the story of mekhirat Yosef, as the brothers once and for all experience closure by having their lingering concerns put to rest and resolving their uneasy feelings. It is possible that Chazal did not want us to leave this story feeling too satisfied with the “happy ending” of reconciliation. Alongside our respect and admiration for Yosef who managed to forgive his brothers and see the hand of Providence that guided the events, we must also come away from this story asking the painful question, “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” Chazal perhaps sought to emphasize that when all is said and done, after the “happy ending” and final reconciliation between Yosef and brothers, something unconscionable occurred. Even as we feel gratified by the brothers’ sincere regret and Yosef’s willingness to forgive, we are to also walk away from this story dismayed and in horror over this terrible tragedy, and wholly committed to learn from our ancestors’ mistakes and ensure that hatred and contempt among brothers would never again repeat itself.