Saturday, December 08, 2007

Parshat Vayigash 1

For the D'var Torah I published last year on Vayigash click here

Reproof and Rebuke

Yosef’s brothers have no idea of what is going on. They come to Egypt to purchase grain, instead they are treated like spies and thrown into jail. They are released on the condition that they return with their youngest brother Binyamin, but when they do so they are again arrested on trumped up charges. When Yosef threatens to keep Binyamin as a slave and send the others back to their father, Yehuda finally confronts him. This elicits a response which is even more puzzling. Yosef sends all the Egyptians out of the room, breaks down and cries. It is only when he says to them “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45; 3) that the brothers realise what has been happening. But with those few words Yosef’s brothers suddenly have a clear understanding, not only of what has occurred during the past few weeks, but for the whole 22 years since they had sold their brother. “And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified before him” (ibid.).

The Midrash (Yalkut Vayigash 152) comments on this: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said “Woe to us from the day of judgement, woe to us from the day of tochecha (rebuke). Yosef was one of the youngest of the brothers, yet his brothers were unable to stand before him because they were terrified. When G-d will come and rebuke each and every person for their actions how much more terrifying will it be!”

This Midrash needs explanation. Where do we find that Yosef rebuked his brothers? All he said to them was “I am Yosef”, and immediately “they were unable to answer him”. Rashi (Genesis 45; 3) explains that they were not terrified of Yosef that he may harm them, but rather because of embarrassment. But the question remains, where is the rebuke that the Midrash mentions?

The brothers had sold Yosef 22 years earlier because of his dreams. He told them all that he would become ruler over them and that they would have to bow down before him. His brothers saw this as an act of rebellion against Yehuda, from whom all future kings of Israel would be descended, and therefore sentenced him to death. In an act of mercy they commuted that sentence, and sold him as a slave to passing traders. Their primary motivation in all of this was to ensure that his dreams did not come to fruition. After all this time had passed, seeing that their father Ya’akov was not consoled over Yosef’s death, the brothers resolved to try and find him when they were in Egypt. This is why they came into Egypt separately; they split up to search for Yosef (Rashi ibid. 42; 3). This in fact was the pretext that Yosef used to accuse them of spying. Where did they look for him? They expected to find Yosef in the slave markets, and were prepared to redeem him. The last place that they thought he would be was on the throne of Egypt, which is why the idea never crossed their minds, despite all the hints that Yosef gave them.

With the two words “Ani Yosef” (I am Yosef), his brothers were forced to admit that they had been wrong about everything from the very beginning. They suddenly realised that selling Yosef had not thwarted his dreams, but had caused them to come true. They had to admit that they had misjudged Yosef, and should not have sold him or mistreated him, because he had been absolutely correct all along. They had to confess that the past 22 years that they had been deceiving their father, and letting Yosef suffer in prison, had been a mistake. They were forced to admit that Yosef had not been just a ‘dreamer’, but a prophet in his predictions.

The Hebrew word tochechameans not only “rebuke”, but also “proof” (as in English - “reproof”). When Yosef revealed himself to his brothers he proved to them the error of their ways. This is the strongest reproof that there can be. This explains the Midrash. There are two components to G-d’s future judgement of us; “Woe to us from the day of judgement”, when G-d replays the video of our lives and shows us the things that we have done wrong. “Woe to us from the day of rebuke” when, upon seeing this video we will be forced to concede that we have transgressed, and that it has been without just cause, and furthermore that it has not helped us to attain the goals that we were hoping for.

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