2002This week's Torah portion begins at a climactic point in the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, who has not yet revealed his true identity, has seized Benjamin through contrived circumstances. Judah, who has taken personal responsibility for the safety of Benjamin makes a desperate attempt to convince Joseph to release Benjamin ...
"And your servant, my father, said to us, 'you know that my wife bore me two sons: and the one went out from me, and I said certainly he is torn to pieces, and I have not seen him since (this is Joseph). And if you take this one also from before me and a disaster occurs to him you will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol (death).' Now therefore when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, their lives are linked. It will happen when he sees that there is no boy, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant, my father, to Sheol ...
And Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am Joseph, is my father still alive?' His brothers were startled and unable to answer him"
1. What type of argument was Judah trying to employ in securing the release of Benjamin? In what way is this argument laden with irony?
2. What were Joseph's motives or feelings in revealing himself at this time? How can we understand his response, especially in light of the fact that Joseph must know from the content of Judah's argument that his father is still alive?
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (d. 1550)
"Is my father still alive - Is it possible that he has survived his sorrow and worry over me?"
Midrash Genesis Rabbah 93:10
"And he lifted up his voice to cry ... and [his brothers] were unable to answer him - Abba Cohen Bardela said, 'Woe to us from the day of judgment. Woe to us from the day of rebuke ... Joseph was the smallest of the tribes and they were unable to stand before his rebuke as it is written, His brothers were startled and unable to answer him, When The Holy One (God) comes and rebukes each and every individual according to what is, as it is written, I will rebuke you and set [your deeds] before your eyes (Psalms 50:21) how much more so [will we be startled and unable to answer].'"
Sforno and Midrash Navigator
1. The Midrash explains that Joseph was rebuking his brothers, according to Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno what was Joseph really communicating to his brothers in his rebuke? How did this succeed in silencing them?
2. Why does the Midrash make a comparison between Joseph "the smallest of the tribes" and God during the "Day of Judgment"? What is meant by "rebuking each and every individual according to what is."?
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno and Genesis Rabbah understand Yosef's response to his brothers as a challenge or rebuke of their selling him into slavery. Judah had tried to plea to Joseph that he should have mercy on Benjamin because of the pain and hurt that it would cause to Jacob his father. Joseph replies rhetorically, "is my father still alive?" Or, in other words, how has Jacob survived the suffering that occurred when you sold me into slavery, ensuring that I would never see him again? Were you so concerned about his feelings then? To this blatant hypocrisy, Joseph's brothers could have no response.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Ber Soloveitchik, in Beit Halevi elaborates on the connection between Joseph's rebuke and the Day of Judgment. He explains that in our efforts to rationalize and defend our actions we often gloss over inconsistencies in our values. For example, we tend to feel magnanimous in our tolerance and politeness towards certain individuals (people that interest us or that we naturally like), not realizing that we are cold and unresponsive towards others. Judgment Day is particularly fearful to Abba Cohen Bardela in the Midrash, particularly because no individuals could totally escape inconsistencies in the applications of their values, certainly not before God who sees all our actions for what they are. The Midrash warns that we have to be wary of our justifications and tendencies towards self-righteousness, especially since human tendency makes them unavoidable. I would argue that whatever standard we have for judging the actions of others, it should certainly not be less gracious than the standards that we use for judging ourselves.
Prepared by Rabbi Ilan Haber, Senior Campus Strategic Services Associate, Hillel's Schusterman International Center.