Words and Feelings
The story of Yosef and his brothers offers a particularly poignant window into the very real emotional lives of our biblical ancestors. These emotions are described in words, as when the Torah first states outright that the brothers hated Yosef, and are also expressed in actions, as when their hatred is illustrated by the fact that they were unable to speak peaceably to him (Bereishit 37:4-5).
Show or tell?
They say actions speak more loudly than words. Certainly, Yehuda’s quiet assumption of responsibility for Binyamin, and his bold appeal to the Egyptian leader, provide a more vibrant picture than a simple statement that “Yehuda repented” could have conveyed. Yosef’s repeated struggles to hide his tears are similarly indicative, showing us rather than telling us that he is deeply moved by his brothers’ presence.
On the other hand, the challenge in reading actions rather than explicit statements is that their meaning is less, well, explicit. We know the reason the brothers couldn’t speak nicely to Yosef was that they hated him, because we are told. But what exactly motivated Yehuda’s later actions? Was it regret over selling Yosef, and/or over causing Yaakov grief? Was it love for Binyamin? Was it simply a practical strategy to survive the famine?
What exactly was behind Yosef’s tears? Was he happy to see his beloved brothers? Was he reliving the pain of what they had done to him? Was he reminded of their father and his love for him? Was it all this and more?
Commentators address these questions with a variety of explanations that truly illustrates the existence of “seventy [i.e., many] faces to the Torah.”
One such example in t
his week’s parsha is the description of the brothers’ reaction when Yosef finally revealed his tears and identity, and his brothers “were not able to answer him, because nivhalu before him” (45:3).
There are a number of possible translations for nivhalu: shocked, confused, overwhelmed, alarmed, scared… Even once we choose a word, the meaning is still not obvious.
What exactly did the brothers feel at this momentous reveal, and why did that make them unable to respond to Yosef?
Were they silenced by shame, as Rashi suggests? If so, why? Because they sold him, as in Radak? Or perhaps more deeply, because Yosef sent everyone else out before identifying himself and discussing their past, and they realized that he was protecting them from public embarrassment and that he loved them despite what they had done? (Inspired by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi’s comments on Rashi, though not quite what he says.)
Or was it fear? Perhaps, as Malbim suggests, nivhalu indicates a trembling fear of revenge, “as if he had said: Is my father still alive despite the troubles you caused him?!” After all, Yosef knew from previous conversations that Yaakov was alive; why ask a question to which he knew the answer, if not to make a harsh point and perhaps introduce harsh retribution?
In fact, the Gemara (Chagiga 4b) takes the brothers’ reaction in this verse as a small-scale model of the visceral fear we might expect to feel when facing God on judgment day – and as a reminder to consider our actions in that light.
Alternatively, perhaps they were simply shocked. As a favorite joke from my youth had it: What did Benjamin Franklin say when he discovered electricity? Nothing; he was too shocked! Perhaps nivhalu simply means the brothers, too, were simply too shocked, and needed time to collect themselves and speak. (On a similar note, see Da’at Zekenim in the name of R. Yosef Kara: “They believed and didn’t believe.”)
Talking Through It
With the brothers rendered speechless, for whichever reason(s), Yosef calls them closer and speaks to them more fully, comfortingly, about their sale of him and how he views it. And finally, after he speaks at greater length and tearfully embraces each brother, “afterwards, his brothers spoke with him” (45:15).
(Here, too, one must understand how and why they no longer nivhalu; how did Yosef’s further words help them past whatever it was they were feeling?)
However we understand the details, the bottom line that stands out to me here goes back all the way to the beginning of the story, when “they were unable to speak peaceably to him.” They’ve been through a great deal, together and apart and together, and it will not be all smooth sailing in the relationship from this point on, either. But whatever exactly they have felt at various moments and whatever emotions are still to come – at least, finally, they can talk to each other.