Joseph and Revenge: Seeing the Defeat of His Foes

December 22nd: Vayigash
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the standard components of many films--action films, murder mysteries, and even some period piece films (like adaptations of Jane Austen novels)--is when the bad guy gets his/her comeuppance. When the Death Star blows up in Star Wars, both in episodes 4 and 6, when the villain in every James Bond story gets blown up, or even in Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh sits fuming in her parlor alone—whilst Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy enjoy their wedding, there is something immensely satisfying about revenge. When the scales of justice return to balance, when Evil is punished, and when the heroes emerge from darkness, we feel great relief and, dare I say it, joy!

One would expect this kind of thing in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Though Joseph’s youthful behavior is immature--prancing around with his coat of many colors and tattling on his brothers, he certainly does not deserve being sold into slavery. And so, after many years of abandonment and suffering, and after a number of years of power in Egypt, the appearance of his brothers begging for food must bring up a host of memories and emotions. The reader anticipates some kind of revenge. 

There are those who would say that the game he plays with them--interrogating them and then insisting that their youngest brother, Benjamin, return with them for more grain, and then framing him for theft when he does return--is a kind of revenge, but one can also see this as a kind of test. Have they developed, Joseph wonders, some moral maturity and responsibility? Have the experience and consequences of betraying their brother taught them anything?

In any event, Joseph does not take revenge. He gives them grain and invites them to live in Egypt. He arranges for good grazing land for them in a place they can call their own. He continues his largesse even after their father dies. As the Torah puts it, he speaks to them reassuringly and with kindness, “Fear not. I will sustain you and your children.”  (Genesis 50.21)

Would we do the same in such a situation? Would we welcome our families, or would we ignore them? Would we treat them well, or would we make them suffer? Though few have had the same experience as Joseph, many of us have had situations where revenge seems to be in order. How do we deal with this inclination?

The Psalmist (92.12) gives an interesting subtlety: “I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes, hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.” His ideal is to enjoy their difficulties but not to be the agent who brings them about. Of course, Psalm 92 is speaking about God's justice and God's long term victory. Though we may suffer from the evil deeds of evildoers, God will have the eventual victory. “Though the wicked sprout like grass, though all evildoers blossom, it is only that they may be destroyed forever—while You, O Lord, are exalted for all time!” (Verses 8-9) The evil may think that their victory over good people is permanent, but God will be the victor in the end, and their wickedness will ultimately do them no good. We could call this a kind of revenge projection: we do not do revenge ourselves, but we trust that God will bring about justice—and we look forward to enjoying the news. 

Perhaps it might be helpful to think about God's feelings on such matters. We may enjoy hearing about the downfall of evildoers, but does God? Does God enjoy punishing them? The Tradition, through the Prophets, the Midrash and the Machzor (the High Holy Day prayer book), insists that God does not. God hopes for repentance. God wants it and only dispenses justice reluctantly. Remember the quotation from Ezekiel 18.23 that we read every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.” The Machzor adds, “Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.”

 Perhaps Joseph is thinking in these terms when he realizes who these shabby Hebrew shepherds are. Perhaps he looks at them with godly eyes, disappointed that they behaved so badly in the past, but hoping that they have improved—hoping that they have become more godly.

He could also be thinking in more eternal terms—realizing that this is all a test of his faith and goodness. There is certainly the traditional line of thinking in which the slings and arrows of fortune are less important than the way we respond to them. Remember Rabbi Jacob’s counsel in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph realizes that he has an opportunity for some excessive kindness—kindness to those who do not deserve it. As Rabbi Jacob continues (Pirke Avot 4.17): “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World-to-Come.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph has a bit of the prophet in him and sees his own tribulations as important building blocks in God’s greater plan. We have evidence of this purview in something Joseph explains to his brothers in Va’y’chi (next week’s Torah portion). When they are fearful that, after Jacob’s death, Joseph will exact their long awaited and deserved punishment, Joseph says simply, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50.20)

I certainly do not want to get in the way of your movie viewing—and really enjoying it when the bad guys get what is coming to them. However, when it is our turn for revenge, it might be helpful to think in some of the terms ancient Joseph might have had ruminating around in his head. Our enemies are children of God, and God is hoping they will repent and improve. Perhaps we should try thinking such godly thoughts; perhaps some forbearance and patience may be our noblest response.