A Torah Thought for Teens – Parshas Vayigash
By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
From the moment that his 10 brothers came to Mitzrayim, Yosef pretended that he did not recognize them. He accused his brothers of spying; he imprisoned Shimon, and later Binyomin. Finally, in this week’s parsha, Yosef could no longer contain himself and maintain this pretense (Bereshis 45:1). At this point, he asked all Egyptians to leave the room, and softly revealed himself to his brothers. Their initial reaction was fear that Yosef would harm them [and, according to Rashi, shame for having treated him so poorly when he was at their mercy]. Only later, when he comforted them, spoke to them in Hebrew, and assured them that he will not bear any grudges to them, did they begin to relax in his company.
The words that Yosef used when revealing himself to his brothers are quite puzzling. His opening remark, informing them of his identity, “Ani Yosef; I am Yosef,” (Bereshis 45:3) is entirely proper. The end of that phrase, “Ha’od avi chai; is my father still alive?” – seems to be inappropriate. Why would Yosef pick that particular moment to ask about the welfare of his father? What makes this more surprising is the fact that Yosef had already inquired about the health of his father the moment that his brothers arrived in Egypt the second time (Bereshis 43:27). Why did he feel the need to repeat this question?
The Midrash on this pasuk compares Yosef’s dramatic revelation to his brothers to the moment of truth that we will face when we will encounter Hashem after our 120-year journey in this world. “Oy lanu m’yom ha’din, oy lanu m’yom hatochaicha; Woe is to us on the Judgment Day; on the day of rebuke [for our actions on this world]”. The 10 older brothers of Yosef, continues the Midrash, were rendered speechless due to the deep rebuke administered by Yosef. How much more so will we be silenced when we are confronted by our deeds by Hashem Himself?
The Bais Halevi questions why the Midrash invokes the word tochacha, rebuke, when describing Yosef’s revelation to his brothers. He did not rebuke them; he simply informed them that he was Yosef and asked if his father was still alive. What does this have to do with the Day of Judgment? Where was the tochacha?
The Beis Halevi explains that effective tochacha, criticism, can be administered on two distinctly different planes. The more simple level is when one is questioned why he or she did not follow the Torah’s norms of moral conduct.
- Why were you insensitive to the feelings of your classmates in the playground?
- Why did you neglect to call your parents on Friday afternoon when you were away at summer camp?
- Why did you not dedicate some of your discretionary spending money to charity?
The second, more reflective level occurs when one is required to confront his or her actions, and compare them to their misdeeds.
- You remember what it felt like to be shamed in front of your peers on the soccer field; why then, did you inflict this discomfort on your friend several days later?
- You took the time to call four of your friends on Friday afternoon; why could you not find the time to phone your parents as well?
- You spent $100 on a non-essential item; why did you not set aside money for those less fortunate among us?
This second level of criticism is more personalized. These are not generic questions, but are individual in nature, as they force upon us a level of introspection that we may wish to avoid.
The Bais Halevi explains that Yosef’s initial words to his brothers, while delivered softly, contained a stinging rebuke of their words – and actions – that left them speechless. During the past two visits to Egypt, they kept invoking the image of their elderly father. As they pleaded with Yosef to release Binyomin, they begged him to consider the pain that the imprisonment of Binyamin would have on Yaakov.
At that moment, Yosef could no longer contain himself; “v’lo yachol Yosef l’hisapek” (Bereshis 45:1). He was offended that they were using the imagery of their father’s suffering when it benefited their cause. “Ani Yosef, I am your brother Yosef [the one who was left for dead in the pit 22 years ago]. Ha’od avi chai; is my father still alive [from all the pain that YOU caused him]?” This was not a casual question about the welfare of their father. It was highest level of rebuke, explains the Bais Halevi. The 10 shavatim were being challenged by their younger brother to reflect upon their actions, and the agony that they had caused their father. The Midrash comments that it is this more elevated level of tochacha that we will all face in the Beis Din Shel Ma’aloh (The Heavenly Court).
May the words of the midrash and the powerful messages they convey inspire us to lead meaningful and spiritual lives.
Best wishes for a gutten Shabbos.
© 2004 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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