Towards the end of Parashat Vayechi, we read of the emotional exchange that took place between Yosef and his brothers following their father’s passing. The brothers were concerned that with Yaakov gone, Yosef might avenge their cruel treatment of him many years earlier, and so they approached Yosef to plead for forgiveness. Yosef reassured them that he had no hostile intentions at all. The Torah adds, “He comforted them and spoke to their heart” (50:21).
Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains this to mean that Yosef told his brothers that he would be harmed if he harmed them. If he killed them, then the Egyptians – who suspected that he had been born to a slave class – would accuse Yosef of finding a random group of impressive men and presenting them as his brothers, to prove he was born into a distinguished family. Once he no longer needed these men to prove his distinguished pedigree, the Egyptians would suspect, he killed them. The rationale behind this argument, Yosef told his brothers, is, in Rashi’s words, “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” Killing his brothers would confirm the Egyptians’ suspicion that they were not truly his brothers, because after all, people do not kill their brothers. Yosef therefore could not kill his brothers even if he wished to.
A number of writers raised the question of how this line of reasoning would provide comfort and solace to the anxiety-ridden brothers. Yosef’s rhetorical question – “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” – likely stung their ears and made them shudder. Rather than help them achieve comfort, this remark could have only caused the brothers greater humiliation and stronger pangs of guilt for nearly killing Yosef. How can Rashi claim that the Torah’s description of Yosef comforting his brothers included a comment about the horror of fratricide – the very crime which the brothers initially attempted to commit against him?
One possibility that has been suggested is that Yosef made this comment in order to assure the brothers that he did not hold them fully responsible for their crime. Seforno, commenting to the previous verse, writes that Yosef in this exchange acknowledged that his brothers committed their crime against him due to a mistaken impression that they had. Yosef would bring negative reports about them to Yaakov, and the brothers interpreted this practice as a concerted attempt on Yosef’s part to drive them all from the family so he would be Yaakov’s sole heir. They therefore felt it necessary to eliminate Yosef, whom they viewed as posing a dire risk to the family. In essence, according to Seforno, Yosef was telling his brothers that he forgave them because he recognized that they acted on a fundamentally mistaken premise, a mistake which, at least to some degree, mitigated their guilt. If so, then we can perhaps understand Yosef’s intent in rhetorically asking, “Is there such a thing as a brother who kills his brothers?” He was telling his brothers that killing a brother is such a horrific crime that there must have been exceptional circumstances that prompted them to commit this act. This question was, indeed, part of Yosef’s effort to console his brothers and ease their conscience, as he assured them that he recognized the extraordinary set of circumstances which led them to this unspeakable deed.
So often, wrongdoing results from an innocent, or at least somewhat excusable, mistake. Yosef had the wisdom and humility to recognize that although his brothers had committed a despicable crime, it was precipitated by a misimpression. They irresponsibly reached a drastic conclusion based on their assumptions about his motives, but ultimately, it was a mistaken perception that drove them to act as they did. We learn from Yosef to try as much as possible to judge others favorably and understand the innocent, or partially innocent, mistakes that underlie their wrongful conduct. This open-minded approach can go a long way to helping us avoid anger and resentment and ensure that we do not allow excusable mistakes to destroy relationships.