This week’s Torah portion, Vaye-chi, brings us to the end of the Joseph story and the completion of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. The portion opens with Joseph’s entire family having fled the famine in the land of Israel and taken up residence in Egypt. Jacob, who was already advanced in years when he came to Egypt, reaches the end of his life and dies.
Joseph’s brothers grieve their father but they are also filled with fear and trepidation. “What,” they seem to wonder, “will happen to us now that our father Jacob is dead? Without his protection will Joseph exact his revenge for the pain and wrongdoing we did to him so many years ago?”
Joseph sees the fear in their eyes and, the Torah tells us, “comforted [them] and spoke to their hearts.”
It is, as the rabbis of old pointed out, a strange and peculiar phrase. What exactly does it mean to “speak to someone’s heart?” The great commentator Rashi explained that the phrase tells us that Joseph recognized their concern and, “[spoke] words that were accepted by their heart[s].”
In other words, Rashi wants us to understand that Joseph put himself in his brothers’ shoes. He recognized their feelings of fear and vulnerability and could relate to them because of his own experiences.
And then, as Rabbi Brad Artson puts it,
“Rather than exploiting their panic, rather than giving a lecture, he chose his words so that his brothers would be able to understand what he wanted to say, so that the comfort he intended would be received.
So often, we speak without considering how our listeners might hear our words. In getting it off our chest, we don’t pause to reflect on what we have now dumped on the chests of others. Not so Joseph. He knew that his brothers needed assurance that he understood their fears and needed to know that he shared their estimation of what ought to happen. In English, we call that ability empathy. The rabbinic phrase is “what comes from the heart goes straight to the heart.”
The same is true in our own day. It is so easy for us to respond to the pain, the fear, the anxiety and the grief of others in the way we would want them to respond to us. We forget that what helps us at difficult times may not be helpful to others. So, while our intent may be good, we inadvertently send the message to the person sharing their vulnerability that we don’t really hear or see them. And in the process, our attempt at showing love may make them feel even more isolated at a time when they need connection.
Instead, the Torah teaches us, when we are with someone who is in pain, who is fearful or is filled with anxiety, and they take the risk of sharing their vulnerabilities, we need to put ourselves aside and be fully present for them. Our presence may not take away their hurt but it will send them the message that they are not alone. That is what Joseph communicated to his brothers in the moments after Jacob died. And that is what we owe one another, as well.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen