The book of Genesis concludes with Yosef’s story. It’s worth noting that Yosef is its most prominent protagonist, with roughly a quarter of the book revolving around Yosef as the central character.
As an adolescent, Yosef was his own worst enemy, sharing his vivid dreams with his brothers, who were already jealous of their father’s close relationship with him. Anticipating that this arrogant dreamer was inherently unworthy and would pose a threat to their great ancestral legacy, his brothers unceremoniously deposed him, selling him into ignominious slavery. Yet, this hero of heroes was undeterred and climbed his way from the depths of slavery and false imprisonment to the heights of Egyptian aristocracy.
The story reaches it’s climax with Yosef positioned as the fully naturalized Egyptian Tzafnas Paneach, ruler of Egypt. In a stunning reversal, his brothers unwittingly appear before him, humbly supplicating for his benevolent assistance:
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי־הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל־הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל־עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל. וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ – The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. Now Yosef ruled the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (42:5-8)
This moment is arguably the moment the entire book turns on. Up to this point, families fracture and go their separate ways because they cannot get past their differences. But something different happens this time because Yosef does something different.
To be sure, Yosef remembers the dreams he once had that his siblings would one day bow before him. This moment utterly vindicates him – his dreams are literally becoming a reality right now! All the difficulties in his life, from his brothers’ torment at home, through slavery and prison, fighting to get by on his own, were because his brothers thought he was a conceited upstart. Little did they know that the jumped up dreamer had been a prophet all along!
After so many years of wrongful hurt; if he were to reveal his true identity now, can we begin to imagine the sense of power and satisfaction that those words might be laden with? How tantalizingly sweet would those words taste rolling off our tongue?
Yet, faced with the ultimate I-told-you-so moment, Yosef turned away from that path and towards the road to reconciliation, paving the way for the family to let go of past differences successfully. The Kedushas Levi highlights how gracious and magnanimous Yosef was to avoid rubbing in his complete and total vindication. Yosef recognized who they were, remembered precisely what they had done, and only made sure they could not recognize him in the very moment they bow and submit!
Yosef refused to kick them when they were down, and would ultimately offer a positive spin on the entire story, that God had ordained the whole thing to position him to save them from their predicament – שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָיִם / לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים / כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.
Fully grown-up, Yosef learned that it was never about him, and he recognized that he was just a tool. There was no glory to be had in his wealth, success, or even his prophecy, except to the extent he could use it to help others and heal the rift in his family. No-one had properly understood his childhood dreams; they wouldn’t bow because he was better than them but because he was going to save them all. From this point on through the end of the story, he repeatedly makes sure to feed and care for his brothers and their families.
He acted from his heart, not his pain. He was better than the brothers who had once tried to break him. He healed, rather than staying bitter.
If your family is even on speaking terms, some members are probably at odds a little too often, and there are probably quite a few I-told-you-so moments. It’s the cycle of most of the book of Genesis; it might even be the natural course of life. But as natural as it is, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not inevitable.
We should remember that the greats that we look up to faced those moments with compassion and humility. We should remember that choosing to react that way has the power to defuse decades of hurt. The legacy of these stories is that we have the ability to choose to avert the cycle of hurt and fill that void with healing. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you.
Be the person that breaks the cycle.