We read in Parashat Vayigash of the dramatic moment when Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who did not consider for a moment that the Egyptian vizier who had accused them of spying, and demanded that they bring their youngest brother to him, was actually Yosef, the brother whom they had sold as a slave twenty years earlier. Yosef said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Yosef, whom you had sold to Egypt” (45:4).
Seforno explains that Yosef mentioned the event of his sale as his slave to prove to the brothers that he was Yosef. The merchants who purchased Yosef, Seforno writes, did not know, and likely would never imagine, that the people selling them a slave were the slave’s brother. They probably assumed that this transaction was like any other sale of a slave that was common in ancient times, and were not aware that this slave was an ordinary man cruelly betrayed by his brothers. Therefore, Seforno explains, by identifying himself by name as both their brother, and the one they had sold as a slave, Yosef proved to his brothers that he was speaking the truth, because nobody else knew that he had been sold by his brothers.
Or Ha-chayim adds a different insight into the reason why Yosef found it necessary to mention his having been sold by his brothers. According to Or Ha-chayim, when Yosef announced, “I am your brother, Yosef, whom you had sold to Egypt,” he was indicating that he was their “brother,” and retained his brotherly love for them, even at that moment when they acted cruelly to him. Yosef did not merely forgive his brothers twenty years later – he maintained his feelings of love for them even at that very moment when they sold him as a slave. Although he cried and pleaded with them (“be-hitchaneno eileinu” – 42:21), nevertheless, according to Or Ha-chayim, he did not despise or resent them at those painful moments. He regarded them as his brothers, to whom he felt unconditionally loyal and devoted, even at the very moments when they conspired against him. And so Yosef stressed to his brothers, “I am your brother, Yosef, whom you had sold to Egypt” – even when they sold him, he felt as their brother.
Or Ha-chayim’s creative reading of this verse teaches that we are capable of not only forgiving wrongs committed against us, but of looking beyond those wrongs even as they unfold. Forgiveness itself is certainly noble, and often very difficult, but Or Ha-chayim challenges us to reach even higher – to maintain feelings of kinship even at the time the pain is inflicted. Of course, in many – or perhaps most – instances, a person cannot be realistically expected to feel fond feelings towards an individual who is acting wrongly towards him. However, Or Ha-chayim teaches that we can and should try to see beyond the wrongful act and respect the individual’s admirable qualities even as we are exposed to the other elements of his character. We should be trying to find what to like and admire about others even when we observe and even suffer from their negative traits – just as we want people to recognize our own good qualities even when they see our less admirable characteristics.