Peninim On the Parsha: Parshas Vayigash


torahBy Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum

I am Yosef. Does my father still live? (45:3)

The very first words that Yosef uttered after revealing his true identity formed the gut-wrenching question: “Does my father still live?” The question indicates Yosef’s primary concern, a worry which had probably been gnawing at him during these many years: “Does my father still live?” The bond that existed between Yaakov Avinu and Yosef was unbreakable and reciprocal. Yosef felt for his father as his father felt for him. Yosef knew, when his father sent him to Shechem to inquire about his brothers, that it was clearly a journey and a meeting fraught with danger. Yet, he gladly went, because his father had asked him to go. When his father asked – Yosef immediately responded. Yaakov’s influence permeated Yosef’s very essence. Thus, it is not at all surprising that the very first words that Yosef uttered after his revelation were, “Does my father still live?”

The relationship between Yaakov and Yosef was one of Jewish destiny. Yosef transmitted the legacy imparted to him by Yaakov, who had received it from his father and grandfather. The future of Klal Yisrael was embodied in this relationship. Thus, explains Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Yaakov Avinu did not cease to mourn for his son, nor could he be comforted over his loss. It was not a personal loss; it was a loss for the future of Klal Yisrael.

Yosef without his father was an incomplete Yosef. He recognized that he was an extension of his father. Therefore, when he uttered, “I am Yosef – does my father still live?” it was a statement: I am Yosef as long as my father still lives. His awareness that he must, throughout his life, remain the embodiment of his father’s life was the spiritual identification card that he carried with him throughout the twenty-two years of separation. He never lost hold of his legacy. During his trials and tribulations, he maintained a steadfast sense of loyalty to the ideals of his family. Consequently, when Yosef identified himself to his brothers, it makes sense that the first question for them would be whether their lives also reflected such a positive fidelity to the teachings of their father.

In a critical analysis of Yosef’s dialogue with his brothers, R’ Feldman questions the significance of the pronoun used by Yosef, “my father,” as opposed to the plural, “our father.” Is he offering a subtle rebuke to his brothers for their apparent lack of sensitivity to their father’s feelings? Did they have no problem convincing their father that his beloved Yosef was torn apart by a wild animal? They certainly did not act then as if he were their father – also. Yosef’s filial relationship with them was far from amicable. Thus, he says, “I am Yosef” – not your (long lost) brother – just plain Yosef, not an allusion to his status as their brother.

Accordingly, Yosef’s question, “Does my father still live?” is a spiritual question. My father’s teachings are still alive for me. How about for you? Are we still a family with a destiny? Do we have a common mission to build Klal Yisrael, or has your attitude changed? Are you ready to repent of your cruel treatment of me and our father, and acknowledge him as your father once again? The brothers did not respond. Perhaps they understood the powerful implications of Yosef’s question/statement. Yosef wants to know if the term, “my father,” with all of its implications and nuances, both the obvious, positive ones, and the remorse that it evokes, “still lives.”

What took so long for Yosef to utter these words, to ask the compelling question which would blanket the past twenty-two years? He did so only after Yehudah made his moving speech, reiterating the word avi, “my father,” referring to his love for Binyamin, his loss of Yosef, his suffering and misery at his advanced age. When Yehudah emphasized that he would not allow any more evil to befall his father, Yosef revealed himself. Yosef saw that the trait that was odious in his brothers, their lack of sensitivity towards their father, had been rectified. Yehudah was so concerned about his father’s negative reaction to Binyamin’s being taken captive that he was willing to take his place and become Yosef’s servant. He would not allow Yaakov to suffer anymore. The critical phrase is avi, “my father.” The same father who had long ago inadvertently become the dividing point in the family with his selection of Yosef as heir to the Patriarchal legacy was now the unifying force between them. He had become the bridge of reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers.

With this in mind, we suggest that Yosef was not actually asking a question but rather, was making a declaration. He finally perceived that the strife and divisiveness that had reigned in the family during these last twenty-two years had been ameliorated. The brothers were no longer envious of Rachel’s two sons. They cared for Binyamin and regretted what had happened to Yosef. Their concern for their father was now as it should have been – but was not – all along. Yosef was not asking, “Does my father live?” He was exclaiming, “My father lives!”

The question, “Does my father still live?” is one which we should ask ourselves. This statement is directed to the observant who have been raised and educated by fathers who cared, who sacrificed themselves so that their sons and daughters would be availed Judaism in its pristine, quantum essence, without embellishment and without adulteration. It is equally directed to those who have not been fortunate enough to have this opportunity, who came to observance later in life, either through the assistance of others or through their own intellectual searching and discourse. To them, father means Hashem, our Father in Heaven. Do our traditions still have the same meaning? Does our heritage still infuse us with pride? Do the lessons we learned in our youth still play a vital role in our lives? Are we transmitting this legacy to the next generation?

The answer to this question makes an enormous difference. If it is in the affirmative, if we can proudly respond with a resounding, “Yes!” to these questions, then our lives are filled with joy. Yes! Our Father still lives within us. If, however, we cannot give a resonant “yes” to these questions, if we meekly look for a hole to climb into, if we vacillate with our response or attempt to justify its negative overtones with lame excuses, blaming everyone but ourselves, then this question should catalyze introspection, remorse and contrition. The change it will hopefully generate will ultimately alter the tenor of the question.

But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him. (45:3)

Chazal have used the brothers’ reaction to Yosef’s revelation – their overriding fear and trepidation – to describe in some manner what we are all destined to face on the day of ultimate judgment before the ultimate Judge. Indeed, the Kli Yakar writes that this is why the Torah relates their reaction, so that the intelligent individual will derive a kal v’chomer, a priori argument, concerning what he should personally expect. When you think about it, what does the average person fear? There is no doubt that we all have areas in which we are deficient; some, in which we could improve; and others, in which we have serious – perhaps uncorrectable – deficits. We are only human. Certainly, we will not be taken to task for not developing our potential and becoming this generation’s Gaon m’Vilna or Chafetz Chaim. Our Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, teach us otherwise. This is what prompted the unprecedented fear that gripped Yosef’s brothers. It was discovered that they had erred this entire time, that all of their postulates had been false.

The brothers had paskened, adjudicated the law, and decided that Yosef’s actions warranted the ultimate penalty: death. He was a rodef, pursuer, and deserved to be punished accordingly. They had grappled with the incident concerning Yosef numerous times throughout the years, arriving at the same decision each time. Now, after twenty-two years, there is aroused within them some doubt concerning their lack of compassion. Perhaps they should have shown a bit more sensitivity. After all, he was their brother. But, that was all. After twenty-two years, their only concern was their lack of compassion. Their opinion concerning the penalty which they had adjucated was set in stone. They had not erred.

A few days later, Yosef made his revelation: Ani Yosef, “I am Yosef!” Suddenly, they realized that they had not been correct, an error in judgment had crept in. They were shocked beyond shock. According to Chazal, parchah nishmasam, their souls flew out from them. They died as a reaction to their overwhelming fear. Obviously, their neshamos returned, but, for a short moment, they were the “living dead” or the “dead living.”

Horav Leib Chasman, zl, would present this scenario based on Chazal’s description of what had occurred that day: He would klop on his shtender, bang on the podium, and challenge his students: “Is there anyone among you who has long ago determined the lifestyle he should lead, and, of course, he cannot be wrong? He has decided that he simply does not have the acumen to become a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, the diligence and character to become a yarei Shomayim, G-d-fearing Jew. He now begins to address whatever shortcomings he might have, but scholarship and G-d-fearing are no longer ‘on the table.’ It is beyond him. Hashem can only make demands on those areas that affect Him. Certain areas are beyond his ability – or so he has decided.”

The Mashgiach continued, “Bachurim! My dear students! What are you going to do when you stand before the Kisei HaKavod, Holy Throne, and discover that Hashem does not agree with your assessment? He feels that you did have the acumen and the ability. Now you have an idea what Yosef’s brothers experienced. They discovered that it had all been an egregious error. Yosef had not been guilty. If so, what should we say?”

In relating his revered rebbe’s reaction to self-imposed smugness concerning sin, Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, would suggest another reason for the brothers’ fainting spell and sudden shock upon learning the true identity of the Egyptian Viceroy. He cites an incident concerning the Gaon, zl, m’Vilna, who, while eating his Friday night meal, inadvertently touched a fruit peel. He immediately fainted. He had touched muktzeh (literally, “set aside,” a class of objects which is not set to be used on Shabbos). After a few moments, he was revived, only to faint once again. His rebbetzin, understanding what had caused him to faint, quickly walked over and stood directly in front of him and began eating the peels. When the Gaon saw that the peels could be eaten and, thus, could be considered food, he was able to remain revived. He realized that the peels were not muktzeh.

Clearly, this demonstrates who the Gaon was and illustrates his extreme level of piety. Now, if the Gaon fainted repeatedly as a result of touching peels, is it any wonder that Yosef’s brothers, who were on a much more exalted spiritual level, passed out when they heard the words: Ani Yosef?

Oy lanu m’Yom Ha’Din, v’oy lanu m’Yom Ha’Tochacha. “Woe is to us from the Day of Judgment, and woe is to us from the Day of Rebuke.” Rav Sholom explains the difference between these two terms. Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, is a reference to the type of questions the Tribunal will ask. What did you do on this and this day? What did you not do when you were sequestered alone on a certain day? Where were you on a specific day at a certain time? The list goes on, the type of question is standard: Where and what? Nothing is hidden, no cover-up. One must give an accounting for every minute, every day, week, month and year of his life. Sof davar ha’kol nishma, “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered” (Koheles 11:13). Everything is brought out in the open. There is no avoiding it. This is Yom HaDin.

Yom HaTochachah, Day of Rebuke, refers to the period of time after everything is on the table, every action, every minute is revealed; now it will be decided if the individual has acted properly and in accordance with what he could have done. For example: The chart will show that he did not learn Torah when he could have. He will then be questioned: “Why did you not learn?” He will reply, “I had no head for learning. My acumen just could not cut the grade.” He will then be shown that, for so many other things, he “surprisingly” had a head. Hashem demonstrates for us that our excuses have no validity. If Yosef’s brothers could not handle Yosef invalidating their “alibi,” what will we say when it will be Hashem Who will be doing the demonstration?

But his brothers could not answer him, because they were left disconcerted before him. (45:3)

In the Midrash, Chazal emphasize the fear that will grip every Jew on his ultimate judgment day, when he stands before the Heavenly Tribunal. They cite two instances of rebuke in which even powerful people could not withstand the most simple reproach. First, Bilaam was chastised by his donkey, and he cowered in fear. Second, Yosef, was the “smallest” of the brothers. All he had said was, “I am Yosef,” indicating that his brothers had erred, and they became disconcerted before him. Certainly, when we will stand before the Almighty and He will rebuke us, l’fi mah shehu, each one according to what he is, we will cringe with embarrassment and fear. The phrase, l’fi mah shehu, “according to what he is,” seems to imply something significant, something unusual, something novel. What do Chazal mean by using this phrase?

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that we really do not know ourselves, or, let me rephrase that: We refuse to recognize who we really are and what we are capable of achieving. The brothers thought they had taken the right action concerning Yosef. They might have been a bit more compassionate, but nothing more. When Yosef revealed himself to them, they saw the truth about themselves through a clear, unbiased perspective. Likewise, Hashem will “point out” the real truth about each one of us. No more cover-ups, no more self-sustained positive packaging – just the real truth concerning who we are, what we have achieved and how far we are from the goal of success.

Do we really know who we are? Do we want to know what we are actually capable of achieving? Perhaps not. Most of us have developed a preconceived notion of who we are. We have built an imaginary fa?ade around ourselves, blocking anyone on the outside from entering and discovering the truth. This does not work with Hashem. He knows the truth. He knows who we really are.

Rav Pincus asserts that we do not know who we really are. We imagine ourselves to be fine, good, upright people, who are incapable of doing anything wrong. Regrettably, this is not usually the case. There are activities in which we might engage if society were to deem it appropriate. In other words, there are things that we might do if we could get away with it. These activities, imaginations and desires define the real nature of the person. This is the l’fi mah shehu, “according to what he is.”

Horav Michoel Dov Weissmandel, zl, relates one of the many episodes which occurred during his involvement in the Holocaust. He was availed the opportunity to “redeem” a number of Jews who were destined for the death chamber. It was simply a question of money. He has been credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews during the tragic years of the Holocaust, through bribes and redemption. He turned to a number of secular Jewish groups, who at that time were the only ones who had serious money, and came up against a brick wall. They apologized, offered their regrets, validated their lame excuses, but gave no money. Sadly, the Jews in Europe were not their highest priority.

Shortly after the multiple refusals, Rav Weissmandel had occasion to meet with one of the emissaries who represented this world Jewish organization. He was a professor of chemistry, and made the following reprehensible statement: “You know, Rabbi, that I have a PhD in chemistry, and I have researched the zyklon gas used by the Nazis against the Jews. I can assure you that there is opium mixed in with it. Therefore, the Jews feel no pain when they are put to death.” Can one imagine the coarseness of this statement – by a Jew, no less! To ignore the deaths of millions of his co-religionists with the comment, “At least they feel no pain,” is as reprehensible as it gets. This evil man had no sensitivity whatsoever to the plight of so many. Yet, he was on a committee that was involved in “rescue” on a world basis. Needless to say, the meeting abruptly ended at that point, as Rav Weissmandel picked himself up and left the room. One does not deal with such a fiend!

Let us take this comment in perspective. If the conversation were to take place today, the individual would be labeled in the most negative terms. Sixty-five years ago, however, it was in vogue to hate Jews. It was acceptable to the American people that Jews were dying in Europe. Only a handful of Orthodox Jews fought relentlessly to expose the wholesale murder that was going on, and, in some way, served as America’s conscience. When we take this incident into perspective, we note that there are two aspects to each individual: the l’fi mah shehu, the real person; and the one that presents himself to the public. That professor was self-loathing, evil and heartless, but, in the society in which he lived, he was considered a decent, fine individual, a member of a world rescue organization.

Rav Pincus relates that he once had to take his young child to the emergency room for a bad cut to the knee. Regrettably, it was during a physicians’ strike. The doctors had to be in the hospital in case a major trauma would occur. When Rav Pincus came in, the nurse – who was not on strike – saw that the child needed stitches. She immediately turned to the attending doctor for help. He simply smiled and said, “Sorry, I am on strike.” Now, if someone would have been brought to the emergency room in cardiac arrest, he certainly would have responded. Why? Because the strike does not supersede matters of life and death – just children who need stitches. What kind of person is this doctor? Is he compassionate? Is he a decent human being? It all depends on the strike, and what is considered acceptable.

Some people live dual lives, presenting themselves to the community as kind, respectable, even virtuous. In truth, beneath the veneer of respectability, there lurks a darker side, one that – under different conditions – would expose the ugly truth, which, quite possibly, the person does not even realize applies to him. This is what Hashem will show each one of us on our personal day of judgment. Is it any wonder that Yosef’s brothers were traumatized with fear? What should we say?

Behold! Your eyes see as do the eyes of my brother, Binyamin, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you. (45:12)

Apprehensive that his brothers still doubted his true identity, Yosef sought to reassure them by referring to his “mouth that is speaking to you.” Rashi explains that the reference to his mouth denotes Yosef’s ability to speak Hebrew. This exposition has been questioned by the commentators, since Yosef’s position as viceroy required him to come in contact with other world leaders, thus necessitating him to learn the Hebrew language. What indication was there that he had been proficient in this language from birth?

Horav Bentzion Halberstam, zl, the Bobover Rebbe, in his Kedushas Tzion, cites Horav Yaakov Emden, zl, who asserts that a Jewish child, by nature, speaks Hebrew. He goes so far as to say that if a child were not to have come in contact with human beings, if he had been born on an island and raised in seclusion, without conversing with anyone, he would naturally speak lashon kodesh, the holy tongue/language, Hebrew. The reason that we do not speak Hebrew is that we listen to other languages, so that these “foreign” languages supersede Hebrew in our brains.

Yosef was born and raised in Yaakov Avinu’s home. He heard no language other than Hebrew. Therefore, his means of expression was not tainted by any other language. Hebrew was his mother-tongue. It was his mouth that was speaking – not him. When the organ in question performs its natural, G-d-given function, we say organ/foot/arm/ear/eye – walks, throws, hears, sees. When the organ is not performing its natural function, we say the person acted. A person flies, since this is not natural for him. Thus, when Yosef said, my mouth speaks, rather than saying I speak, he was intimating that his ability to speak Hebrew came naturally, without embellishment. It was intrinsic to his natural being, his unique heritage.

Hallelu es Hashem min ha’Shomayim. Praise Hashem from the heavens.

In the Talmud Shabbos 118b, Chazal assert that one should not recite Hallel on a daily basis. Apparently, reciting this song of praise constantly reduces it to nothing more than a musical song and a farce. The Talmud notes that Rabbi Yosi considered its daily recital a worthy practice. They reply that this is a worthy practice only in regard to the Hallel which is in Pesukei d’Zimra, “Verses of praise.” Rashi comments that this refers to Psalms 148 and 150, since these Psalms do not dote on the subject of miraculous intervention but, rather, on matters that warrant praise every day. While these are certainly impressive verses of praise, why do they take precedence over Psalm 146, which is the first of the Hallelukahs (Halleli nafshi es Hashem, “My soul praises Hashem”)? These verses express our overwhelming gratitude to the Almighty for His countless chassadim, kindnesses. They also allude to Hashem’s justice concerning the wicked. Why should that Psalm not have greater significance than one which records man’s ability to activate all of the forces of creation in praise of the Almighty?

Horav Avraham Grodzenski, zl, explains that the above Psalm is unique in that it records gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, while the preceding Psalms address the greatness of the Almighty. The Psalm teaches us that all of creation – the ministering angels, the sun and the moon, the growing herbiage and creatures of the earth – wait for man to raise his “baton” and lead the “orchestra” in praise of Hashem. Man meditates, contemplates, and acknowledges the greatness of Hashem’s work, and that starts the “ball rolling.” This Psalm is a tribute to man, who controls the praise of Hashem. What place, however, does a tribute to man have taking precedence over a tribute to Hashem?

The Mashgiach explains that, veritably, praise belongs to Hashem and that precedes everything. Man, his eminence notwithstanding, lacks the ability to praise Hashem sufficiently. He must, therefore, harness all of the forces of creation, so that they all praise the Almighty in concert. Even then, we are sorely lacking in our ability to praise Hashem properly. Despite all that we collectively do, it all only represents a microscopic effort, and an infinitesimal recognition of the real praise that Hashem deserves from us.

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