Towards the end of Parashat Vayechi, the Torah tells of the fears felt by Yosef’s brothers following their father’s death, that Yosef might seek to avenge the crimes they committed against him. They were concerned, evidently, that Yosef may have perhaps dealt with them forgivingly until that point in deference to Yaakov, and now that Yaakov had passed on, Yosef might now take his revenge. The brothers begged Yosef to forgive them, and even offered to be his slaves, but he assured them that they had nothing to fear.
In describing the brothers’ concern, the Torah tells that they feared, “lu yistemeinu Yosef” – “Perhaps Yosef will despise us” (50:15). Rashi and Ibn Ezra note that while the word “lu” – which is related to the more common expression, “halevai” – often refers to a favorable possibility for which one hopes, it can also mean “lest,” referring to one’s fears of a negative outcome. And thus it should not surprise us that Yosef’s brothers spoke of their fears of Yosef’s revenge with the expression “lu yistemeinu,” which quite clearly refers to a possibility which the brothers dreaded, and not one which they hoped for.
The Ba’al Ha-turim, however, offers a creative reading of this verse, one which follows the more common meaning of “lu,” as the expression of hope for a favorable outcome. The Torah tells that the brothers suspected that Yosef might “return onto us all the evil which we caused him” – meaning, that Yosef would cause them something generally resembling what they had caused him. As we know, the brothers’ mistreatment of Yosef actually ended up saving the family, and it resulted in Yosef rising to the position of vizier in Egypt and correctly predicting a food shortage for which Egypt prepared in advance. By selling Yosef as a slave, the brothers ensured the entire family’s survival during the harsh famine that ravaged the region. Although Yosef suffered at their hands, the events ultimately worked out in the entire family’s favor. As such, the Ba’al Ha-turim comments, the brothers’ “fear” – “lu yistemeinu” – could actually be understood as an expression of hope. The brothers wished that if or when Yosef chose to avenge their crime, they should experience the same kind of outcome that Yosef experienced – meaning, an outcome that ultimately turns out to their and everyone’s benefit. This was the brothers’ hope and source of encouragement – that any harm Yosef would inflict upon them would result in a positive outcome.
While this reading of the verse appears strained, the Ba’al Ha-turim offers us a valuable lesson relevant to our natural fears and anxieties. Even as the brothers feared the prospect of Yosef’s revenge, they found a degree of comfort in the precedent of their actions towards him – which caused him suffering, but ultimately proved beneficial to everyone. The Ba’al Ha-turim here perhaps seeks to urge us, too, to find the glimmer of hope in our darkest fears, to draw encouragement from the positive aspect of that which we dread. We should recognize that even if our fears materialize, there is something favorable to look forward to. The Torah formulated the brothers’ concern with the word “lu,” which can also have a favorable connotation, because our fears and anxieties should never be all negative. There is always something positive, hopeful and encouraging to anticipate, and by finding the “silver lining” we can remain calm and upbeat even in periods of anxiety and fear.