By Rabbi Craig Axler
The end of Parshat Vayechi portrays Joseph’s death scene: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:26) Joseph is the only one of his brothers for whom Torah records length of life. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel — yes. We get the lengths of each of their lives (and some of their wives).
But Joseph is the only son of Jacob whose longevity is recorded. One tradition has it that Joseph’s longevity is noted to emphasize that he died with a “Shem Tov” — a good name. An interesting thought, particularly because Joseph is a complex character.
What makes Joseph’s name a Shem Tov, one remembered after his death for blessing?
Despite his complicated path, the incomprehensible level of forgiveness he shows toward his brothers — one that seems necessary to state until just verses before his death — establishes a “good name.”
His brothers fearfully approach after their father dies. They come with a story: “Dad said before he died that, whatever you do, you must forgive us…” There’s no record of that conversation! But Joseph reassures and comforts them, even deflects the blame: “It was not you, but God…” as has been his tack from the time he revealed himself to them. He is a peacemaker. And the text poignantly says, after his brothers approach, he cries. It’s not easy to be a peacemaker, particularly when it involves letting go of resentment he would justifiably harbor towards his brothers. But he does so, and this brings comfort and unity to his brothers before his own death.
Joseph dies — according to Torah as Yosef, his Israelite name, not Tzafnat Paneach, the Egyptian honorific Pharaoh gave him. Though a part of Egyptian society for 80 years, he retains his identity — one that conveys his essence, but marks him as an outsider. Powerful, but always just beyond Egyptian society.
The midrash asks: Why did the Israelites merit deliverance from enslavement? Because they did not change their names!
Joseph was able to be a successful, integral part of Egyptian society without becoming Egyptian, setting the example for what it is to retain personal difference in a way that only earns respect.
Joseph’s Shem Tov comes because he was a peacemaker, because he practiced radical forgiveness and because he remained true to himself, despite the pressures that came upon him to reject his particularity — all lessons we might relate to today.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.