We have finally reached one of the dramatic scenes in the entire Bible. Joseph’s brothers had tossed him into a pit, then some passing merchants brought him out and sold him into slavery. When Reuven, the oldest brother retuned to the pit, it was empty. The brothers thought he (Joseph) was dead and didn’t know what to tell their father. They took Joseph’s coat, which had been removed before they threw him into the pit, dipped it into goats’ blood, and gave it to their father, who assumed that a wild animal had devoured him. Fast forward 22 years; Joseph was second in command in Egypt and his own brothers did not recognize him when they went to request food during a famine. After taking one of his brothers’ hostage, Joseph negotiated with the rest of them to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to Egypt. After doing so, Yehuda, leader of the group, expressed harsh words to the man he thought was the Viceroy of Egypt. The Torah then describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself; the climax of the story.
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; is my father still alive? And his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified at his presence. (45:3)
Instead of simply stating, “I am Joseph,” he added “Is my father still alive?” Anyone following the story knows that he had been talking to the brothers until about their (his) aged father in Canaan. If Joseph knew his father was alive, why did he ask “is my father still alive?” Before answering, we need to go back to the brothers’ casting him into a pit and how they justified isolating their brother and leaving him to the elements.
Until now, the brothers felt justified in what had been done to Joseph years ago. They concluded that he was trying to destroy their family, which would have been an end to what needed to become the Jewish nation, a nation that had a mandate to intellectually, socially, and theologically introduce the world to the concept of monotheism. (Indeed, in the words of John Adams, this small family eventually contributed “more to civilize men than any other nation…fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. ” ) It wasn’t only Joseph’s lashon hara, evil reports, about his brothers that he brought to their father (Jacob), his main offence was that he was stopping Jewish history from advancing the way it was meant to. The only regret that they had about throwing him into the pit was that they had been cold and unkind when they heard his cries, and did not respond when he was in the pit (Genesis 41:21). Other than that, they were absolutely certain that their actions had enabled their family mission to be properly fulfilled.
What, then, did Joseph mean when he asked, “Is my father still alive?” He already knew the answer; it is obvious that the question cannot be taken at face value. Rather, he was questioning his brothers about the emotional pain they had caused their father. “While you (my brothers) might have thought I was guilty and deserving of this harsh punishment, there was another innocent victim who suffered due to your lack of judgment. What about our father, Jacob? Why have you not expressed remorse concerning him? Is he still alive; can he still be alive after all you have put him through? Maybe he buried himself in grief for the last 22 years because his son was missing, and thought to be dead? How could you be so indifferent to your father’s suffering all these years?” The Torah even testifies (Genesis 37:35) that Jacob “could not be comforted.”
In life, harmful actions usually cause pain or damage to innocent people. When a person takes another’s life, (s)he not only harms the victim, but also the victim’s family, children, and parents, all of whom are unable to be comforted. A wife loses a husband, a child loses a parent, a community might lose a respected and valued leader.
One who speaks negatively about another person, undoubtedly hurts innocent people as well. It is not only the person about whom the evil is spoken who is harmed, but his or her loss of friends, job, or social status might also be affected, and their families will pay the price as well.
It is virtually impossible to violate one of the Torah’s guidelines without hurting other innocent people in the process. Herein lies the message Joseph was trying to convey to his brothers. “You thought you were justified in trying to get rid of me, but how was it possible not to think of our aging father? What did he do to deserve this? ‘Is it possible that my father is still alive after all the unnecessary pain you have caused him?'”
This lesson has broad implications in contemporary times as well. Innocent people pay the price for other people’s mistakes. It is impossible to be too cautious or concerned for the feelings of the innocent impacted by a negative action. The following story illustrates this point. I heard it recently from a someone who heard it from the Rabbi involved. A man in Belgium came to his Rabbi to ask him for a blessing for a business venture he was about to go into. The elder Rabbi asked him some questions about it and began to realize that there appeared to be illegal activities involved. The man admitted his guilt but told the Rabbi he was going to do it anyway. Here’s how the conversation went.
“You will end up in jail,” said the Rabbi.
“I consulted my attorney and found out that the maximum sentence is three years,” said the man, “but I have decided that for the amount I will gain, it is worth the risk.”
“What about your wife.”
“I discussed it with her; she said it would be difficult but that she too was on board due to the huge financial benefit we would have.”
“What about your children? When word gets out that their father is in jail, they will be mocked at school. Are you going to put them through this-for years?”
Long pause; “I hadn’t thought about that. I’m not going to do it; I couldn’t do that to them.”
This man is clearly missing a moral compass but all hope is not lost. He is willing to be a thief, scamming someone or some institution out of a large amount of money. But he still had a morsel of morality in him that didn’t allow him to hurt his children. Left to his own thoughts, he didn’t realize it and had he not come to the Rabbi, he would have caused irreparable damage to innocent children.
Two important messages emerge from this topic: The first is that it’s always a good idea to call your Rabbi. Seriously, the main takeaway is to think of all those who will be affected by your poor judgement. But there something else, let’s flip this around to find an encouraging message. The next time you think about doing a mitzvah, something positive, think of all the people who will be affected. If you complement a cashier at checkout, (s)he will feel good. (S)He might be a bit nicer to the next person in line and maybe even to other employees or when (s)he gets home. We have all heard stories about people who took the time to show concern or care for someone else and that person decided not to either kill himself, not to drop out of college, not be nasty in a divorce, not to take revenge, or do some other poor life choice. In each of these scenarios think of the number of family members and others that were positively affected by one’s show of care.
We don’t live in a vacuum, so let’s make sure that we don’t scoop people up with a bad choice. To the contrary, let’s get involved in doing good things that will affect the people who mean a lot to us.