After the brothers bury their father, Yaakov, they return to Egypt. On the way back, they begin worrying that now that Yaakov is dead, Yosef might take revenge for all that they did to him. The commentators explain that their concern arose at this point because they believed that Yosef had not wanted to cause his father any further pain, and for that reason he had not made mention of his brothers’ deeds, but now – after their father’s death – perhaps Yosef would decide to deal with the issue.

A different approach is suggested by Rabbi Mordekhai of Izbitza, in his book “Mei ha-Shiloah”. He identifies, in the brothers’ concern here, the root of Jewish existence in exile. So long as Yaakov was alive in Egypt, the brothers lived with a sense of unity. It was Yaakov himself who was responsible for this, for maintaining the same degree of closeness with all of his sons. No individual among them was singled out as the prospective head of the family; none received more favored treatment from Yaakov than anyone else.

At the end of his life, when Yaakov called all his sons to his deathbed, he blessed them – and here he appointed Yehuda over all of them. The fact that he blessed Yehuda as he did, in the presence of all the brothers, led them to understand that it was Yehuda who had been chosen as the head of the household following Yaakov’s death.

Against this backdrop, a certain tension is created after Yaakov’s death between Yehuda, who has been designated by Yaakov as his heir, and Yosef – who holds the actual office of the viceroy of Egypt, and hence occupies a higher and more important position. This tension arises among all the brothers, including Yosef himself. The righteous Yosef, who on one hand does not want to offend Yehuda – the senior brother, but on the other hand dare not offend the Egyptian royalty (since this could have a detrimental effect on the entire family) separates himself from his brothers in order to allow Yehuda to give expression to his new status of leadership among the brothers.

Here the brothers are mistaken in their interpretation of Yosef’s actions. Instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt and judging his intentions favorably, perceiving his unique greatness and appreciating the honor that he shows to Yaakov and to Yehuda, they judge him unfavorably. They regard his separation from them as being directed against them, as an expression of Yosef’s desire to harm them now that Yaakov is no longer around. In making this mistake the brothers hurt Yosef personally and also damage the unity of the family as a whole. This issue of unity is the focus of the Mei ha-Shiloah’s interpretation: so long as Bnei Yisrael maintained their unity, their combined power gave them the ability to withstand the challenges facing them. But when this unity was ruptured and suspicions and doubts began to arise, their joint strength waned and troubles began to befall them. It was the rupturing of the unity of Bnei Yisrael that ultimately led to subjugation in Egypt. Had the brothers judged Yosef favorably, with a view to maintaining their unity, perhaps they could have stood up against the decrees that were going to be introduced by the Egyptian regime.

The Mei ha-Shiloah regards unity, and judging favorably, as the foundation for Jewish life as it should be lived. In order to be able to strengthen ourselves against the troubles, threats and difficulties that face us, we must strengthen the unity amongst ourselves. This unity is built upon people having a favorable and charitable perception of one another.