Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Vayigash begins where last week’s parsha ended off: the Egyptians are bent on throwing the book at Binyamin, whom they suspect of stealing a goblet. Yet the brothers, led by Yehuda, refuse to yield to their demands, and engage in negotiations to secure his release. Yehuda directs a poignant and harrowing monologue at the Egyptian ruler – who is none other than Yosef.
Yehuda’s heart-rending words decry how this ruler had unremittingly sought to harm the brothers, for no reason at all. He then mentions the tragedy that struck Yaakov’s family – the aging patriarch had lost both his beloved wife, Rachel, and their son, Yosef.
Yehuda explains what could happen to Yaakov if, heaven forbid, Binyamin, Rachel’s other son, were to remain in Egypt. The drama reaches its climax when Yosef, no longer able to endure this ordeal, demands that every Egyptian be removed from the room. Then:
“He gave forth his voice in weeping…and Yosef said to his brothers,
‘I am Yosef, is my father still alive?’”
If we read this verse slowly, and with the proper intonation, it becomes easy to imagine and sense the incredible tension that dissipates at that sublime moment. Yosef, who only several minutes earlier had acted as a cruel and callous ruler, has instantly transformed into a tearful little brother, whose only response was “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?”
The very question strikes us as odd, since Yehuda had already told Yosef that his father was old, but still alive, and if Yaakov had passed away after the brothers had set out on their journey, they obviously would have had no way of knowing this. However, I’d like to focus instead on the brothers’ response to Yosef’s astounding revelation.
According to the text, the brothers could not answer him at all. They were all somewhat jolted after such a stirring event. Our sages take a different path when explaining the scene depicting the brothers’ astonishment. The Midrash in Bereishit Rabba (93:10) uses the following words to describe what happened:
“Woe is to us on the day of judgement! Woe is to us on the day of rebuke!
In other words, if the brothers couldn’t withstand Yosef’s rebuke, how could we hope to withstand a divine reproach? This statement strikes us as odd, considering that Yosef hadn’t taken issue with them or accused them of anything at all. All he said was “I’m Yosef – how is dad doing?”
What did our sages find that hinted to any elements of rebuke in Yosef’s response? Perhaps our sages were trying to teach a very profound lesson on the nature of the human soul. All individuals, or nearly all individuals, have opinions and ideologies that guide their actions throughout their lives. Many of us have concrete and unequivocal thoughts and insights on a great many subjects, both personal and national in nature. Many have well-formed opinions on their friends, neighbors, political adversaries, and on others. Generally speaking, we, too, like to attach certain labels to our opponents, so that it becomes easier to categorize them and ourselves using these black-and-white paradigms.
But what happens to us when this labelling system shatters before our very eyes? How would we react if a neighbor whom we had loved to hate, someone whom we had thought of as haughty and closed off, turns out to be a loyal friend? How would we feel if someone who we had taken for a monster encounters us in the street, and we instantly need to change our opinion of that person?
Our sages call this kind of situation “judgement day” and “the day of rebuke”. Here, “judgement day” is the day that people discover, on their own, that the truths they had chosen to rely on, and the maxims lying at the heart of our decisions to love or to hate certain people, are intrinsically false. The “rebuke” is actually a reality check, which subjects our beliefs to the test of truth. This is exactly what happened to Yosef’s brothers. This was the great rebuke that Yosef dealt his brothers.
Was there anything that the brothers hadn’t thought of, when Yosef came to mind? They associated him with so many things, and they couldn’t even have a conversation with him. And then, during this moment of truth, Yosef says to them, “I am that guy – the demon you had concocted in your imaginations, is now standing before you. How is our father? Is he alive?” Could such a person, whose every thought is directed to his aging father’s condition, pose a threat to the brothers’ safety and well-being?
The brothers are speechless. Who could utter a response when coming face to face with this truth? How would we have responded in their stead? How often have we created imaginary impressions, or genuine or imaginary enemies, only to discover, after meeting and speaking with those individuals, that we had been out of touch with reality?
This is the real censure that will torment us, and this is the real day of rebuke, the day we understand that we had constructed senseless theories about ourselves and about others. We are all a bit like Yosef’s brothers, and we are all a bit like Yosef as well, the one who revealed himself to his brothers, asking “is my father still alive?”