“No ‘Man’ was with Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the extraordinary story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its dramatic conclusion as Joseph reveals himself to his brethren.

As we have noted previously (Vayigash 5761-2001), Joseph is finally convinced that his brothers are completely remorseful for what they had done to him. When Judah selflessly offers himself to serve as a slave to Joseph and Pharaoh, in place of Benjamin, Joseph is finally convinced that his brothers are truly penitent.

Maimonides in his Laws of Teshuva 2:1, states that true Teshuva (repentance) can be confirmed only when a sinner is confronted with the same temptation or the same sin, and remains firm, resisting the temptation to sin. By refusing to abandon Benjamin, the brothers confirm that their Teshuva is wholehearted.

Remembering what Joseph was like in his youth, and their intense hatred for him, Joseph’s brothers could have easily concluded that Benjamin too was a rotten child like his older sibling. There was good reason, and more than sufficient evidence, to believe that Benjamin was guilty of stealing Joseph’s chalice. After all, negative traits run in families. Despite their abiding resentment for Joseph and the turmoil that he had created in their family, Joseph’s brothers stood up for their little brother Benjamin, refusing to leave him behind in Egypt, even though that would have been the easy thing to do. Their commitment to Benjamin was the true sign of Teshuvah.

In Genesis 45:1, Scripture describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, וְלֹא יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, Now Joseph could no longer restrain himself in front of all those who attended to him.  He called out: “Make every man go out from me!” And no man remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

The Abarbanel points out that on two previous occasions, Joseph had actually restrained himself and left the room to weep privately (See Genesis 42:24 and 43:30).  Apparently, now that he was surrounded by so many attendants, because of their presence he could not restrain himself, and ordered that the room be cleared.

Joseph demands that כָל אִישׁ, every man, leave the room. Scripture then says, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, and no man stood with him when he made himself known to his brothers.

One would have expected Joseph to demand that all “Egyptians” who were present leave the room. Instead, Joseph insists that, כָל אִישׁ, every man, leave the room.  Joseph’s brothers, who are also men, remain in the room.

The word “Ish” in scriptures often has a very definite meaning. “Ish” generally implies a person of significant stature and importance, one whose actions could change destiny. So, for instance, when Joseph was wandering in Shechem looking for his brothers, Torah records (Genesis 37:15) וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, a man finds him and asks him, “What are you looking for?”  The rabbis say that this “man” was the angel Gabriel, who sends Joseph to Dotan, so that Jewish destiny would continue to play out.

When Moses sees an Egyptian man trying to kill a Jewish slave by striking him, Scripture (Exodus 2:12) states that Moses turned this way and that, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ, and he saw that there was no man. Our rabbis say that Moses saw that there was no person of stature who was prepared to stand up to protect the Jew.  Therefore, Moses himself intervened.

Similarly, Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, is referred to (Esther 2:5) as אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, there was a “man” of great stature, whose name was Mordechai, who lived in the capital city of Shushan.

When Joseph declares, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי, remove every man from me, scripture testifies, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, that no man stood with him when he revealed himself to his brothers. That “no man stood with Joseph” must mean more than that there were no other people with him. It could very well mean that until this point, Joseph was not really himself and not in control.  Rather, Joseph was being dominated by an “Ish,” an alien spirit.  Apparently, a vengeful spirit took control of Joseph, overwhelming the natural loving and forgiving spirit of Joseph.

The Talmud (Chagiga 15A) recalls the great sage Elisha ben Abuya, who became a heretic, and, after he was ex-communicated, was known as אַחֵר“Acher,” the other one.  When his loving student, Rabbi Meir, told him to return, Elisha ben Abuya said, “I heard a heavenly voice declare that the gates of penitence are open for all חוּץ מֵאַחֵר–‘chutz may’acher,’ with the exception of Acher, ‘the other one.’”

The rabbis ask if it is possible that a human being can be denied repentance? They explain, that as long as Elisha ben Abuya allowed Acher, the other spirit, the negative and heretical spirit, to dominate his being, he could not repent.  But if he would allow himself to return to being Elisha ben Abuya, rather than Acher, he could certainly repent.

It was only after Joseph returned to being Joseph, the kind, righteous Joseph, rather than the vengeful and angry Joseph, that he was able to reveal himself.

Joseph’s transformation, was a defining moment not only in Joseph’s life, but for all of Jewish history and Jewish destiny.  Once the “Ish,” the negative personality of Joseph, was extirpated, removed and banished, kindness and forgiveness was allowed to dominate, and the family of Jacob once again became whole.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Sunday, January 8th, 2017 from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.