I would like to talk today about guilt, a subject that we Jews are self-proclaimed experts on. Why is that? “Jewish guilt” is something that we all joke about, something that we all feel bonded over. There are many theories as to why we are so good at guilt. One of my favorites is that we, more than many peoples of this world, feel the particular weight of our history. For us, the past looms large — in the Torah, in our wandering through the world; through our struggles with Crusaders and Cossacks and Nazis through the centuries, we have more than our share of baggage to lug through the generations. We also know that we’re a part of a very special people, with very high expectations of ourselves — and that alone is enough to make us quite neurotic.
It’s clear from the Torah that guilt was around even in the earliest days. As we finish the Book of Genesis today, we find the brothers of Joseph burdened by their past mistreatment of their brother, and full of fear of Joseph's retribution. We are told that once their father, Jacob, has died, the brothers are particularly terrified of Joseph. They join together and plead with Joseph, they even fib, saying that before he died, their father Jacob had said that he wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers. Hearing his brothers talk this way, the Torah tells us, “Vayevk Yosef b’dabram eilav” — "And Joseph wept hearing them talk like this.”
Why did Joseph cry? Most of us hear this story, and we think that Joseph is crying because, even after all these years since he revealed himself to his shocked brothers, they still don't trust him. They still think that Joseph has been bearing this grudge against them all these years, and the only reason he didn’t attack them was that his father Jacob was still alive. Now, with their father dead, the brothers feared that they had no more protection. And so Joseph cried because he saw how they never believed that Joseph had forgiven them.
But in the Midrash, there’s a hint that Joseph’s tears are not just his hurt that his brothers still don’t trust him. The Midrash says, “Vayar Achei Yosef,” “And the brothers saw that their father had died...” What did they see now that caused them to fear? They saw that when they returned from the funeral of Jacob, Joseph stopped at the pit that they had thrown him in to say the blessing that one is obligated to say at a place where a miracle happened to him... When they saw this, they said, “Now that our father is deceased, we fear that Joseph will hate us and avenge all of the evil that we did to him.”