Parshat Vayigash

Joseph reconciles with his brothers

Speaking Directly
Bereishit (45:1-3) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And Joseph could not longer hold himself in check before all who stood attendance upon him, and he cried, “Clear out everyone around me!” And no man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud and the Egyptians heard and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

Rav Wolbe
In people’s relationships with family members and friends, many times there are certain behaviors that irk a person to the degree that it jeopardizes the relationship. If in truth it is something trivial, then one should work on himself instead of trying to change his friend. However, if the friction was caused because the person was wronged, then it is crucial not to bottle up the feelings inside himself. Not only does such behavior not accomplish the desired result, it can also cause the bottled up feelings to explode at a later date making the possibility for a continued good relationship much harder. After receiving guidance on how to broach the topic, one should take the initiative and discuss the matter. It might not be easy, but it is short term pain for long term gain!

Of course, Joseph had just gone through a very elaborate and time-consuming ruse to engage his brothers. Why does he open up now? While not mentioned by Rav Wolbe, might this suggest work that must be done before speaking openly? What would that work be?

How do you tell the difference between a trivial matter, that you should work on yourself, and one that you should speak directly and openly about?

What might be involved in “broaching the topic”?

What kind of middot would help with direct conversation – I can think of humility, honor, truth and zerizut? What would be involved for you?

Another perspective that comes from Midrash (see below in the next section) and is reflected in the Mussar writings of Rabbi Shmuelvitz and Rabbi Barenbaum is that Joseph executed an example of perfect rebuke. By duplicating the situation of false judgment that the brothers enacted on Joseph with the vizier’s treatment of Benjamin, Joseph held up a mirror to the brothers. They were forced to see the pain and suffering they put Joseph and their father through. Because they acted differently this second time they could also see that they had the sensitivity and capability to choose differently.

Do you agree this was the perfect rebuke? How might holding a mirror to a person be the best way to rebuke someone? Notice that Joseph does not talk about or describe their transgression but creates a role play that forces them to experience the situation from the point-of-view of the victim.

A contrasting argument may point to the fact that bullies are often victims in other relationships — that they displace their anger and pain on someone weaker. In what way might the situation that Joseph creates be different (or not)?

The Midrash states that the punishment we will receive in the afterlife will follow this model — hell is looking at ourselves in a mirror (from the point-of-view of our victims or those that we disappoint). What do you think of this idea? Does it seem just to you?

Bereishit (45:3-4)
But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed before him.

Midrash Rabbah Bereishit
Woe to us on the Day of Judgment! We too, will have no words to answer the rebuke of the Almighty, just like Bilaam and Joseph’s brothers.

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
The trait of shame [boshet] … should not be repressed or ignored.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
…being held in contempt by others can significantly cripple one’s spiritual advancement.

Bereishit (45:4-8)
And Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me, pray,” and they came close, and he said, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God has sent me before you. … And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life … And so, it is not you who sent me here but God.”

According to the Midrash, the brothers were silent because of the their sense of shame. Rabbi Leibowitz speaks of shame being very painful. Yet he says shame should not be repressed or ignored. Is silence the right way to express shame, in your opinion? What are other ways the brothers could have expressed shame?

Rabbi Dessler argues that being held in contempt by others is very counter-productive. Is shaming another person the same as holding them in contempt? What is the difference between feeling shame and being shamed? How might you rebuke someone without holding them in contempt?

Joseph relieves the brothers’ shame by saying all the events were ultimately caused by God, for the good. Yet what the brothers did was wrong. How do you reconcile holding people to account for their choices yet recognize larger forces at work?