“The Innocent Victim”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the Torah describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Prior to revealing himself, Joseph had accused his brothers of being spies, and arrested his brother, Simeon, holding him hostage, until the other brothers return from Canaan and bring along with them their now grown up “little brother” Benjamin.

After eating a meal with his brothers in Egypt, Joseph has his servant plant his valuable personal goblet in Benjamin’s sack, so that he can accuse Benjamin of theft. The brothers come back to Joseph’s palace to fight for Benjamin’s release.

The two potential leaders of the people of Israel, Joseph and Judah, have a major confrontation (Vayigash 5772-2011). The Midrash even says that Judah threatened to destroy all of Egypt if Benjamin were not released. Eventually, Judah’s selfless offer to remain as a hostage in place of Benjamin, touches Joseph, who demands that everyone, except for his brothers, leave his chamber.

Joseph cries in a loud voice, that all of Egypt hears. Finally, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and says, in Genesis 45:3, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי  “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers are so stunned, they can not answer him.

Joseph tries to reassure his brothers, telling them that it is all part of a Divine plan, and that they should not to be distressed. After all, he says, Genesis 45:5,כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם , “It was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you, to save humanity from famine.”

The rabbis wonder: Why did Joseph ask, “Is my father still alive?” when he revealed himself.

We have already explained in our previous Torah messages (Vayigash 5763-2002) that Joseph, of course, had been informed earlier (Genesis 43:28) that his father, Jacob, was still alive, at least he was at the time the brothers left Canaan. According to this interpretation, Joseph was really asking himself, “Is my father still alive in me? Do I still want to be part of this, until now, terribly dysfunctional family? Am I capable of forgiving everyone, so I can rejoin the family as one of Jacob’s sons?”

There may, however, be another important interpretation with a profound message.

Until now, the brothers of Joseph felt that whatever they had done to Joseph as a young lad was totally deserved and justified. They had concluded that Joseph was in the category of a רוֹדֵףRoh’dayph, a pursuer, who was trying to destroy their family and upend Jewish destiny–at least according to their understanding. Not only did Joseph bring evil reports home to their father Jacob about his brothers, he was trying to prevent Jewish history from advancing the way it was meant to. The only regret that they had previously expressed (Genesis 41:21), was that they had been unkind when they heard Joseph’s cries, and did not respond when he was in the pit. Otherwise, they were absolutely certain that what they had done had enabled G-d’s mission to be properly fulfilled.

What, then, was the meaning of Joseph’s question to his brothers, “Is my father still alive?”

Joseph was not, in fact, inquiring about his father’s physical well-being. Rather, he was questioning the brothers about the emotional toll that their actions had taken on their father, Jacob. “While you (my brothers) might have thought that I was guilty and deserving of this punishment of not only being sold as a slave to Egypt, but perhaps even of death, there was another innocent victim who suffered, even more than I, as a result of your actions. What about our father, Jacob? Why do you not express any remorse concerning him? Is he still alive, or did he bury himself in grief for the last 22 years because his son was missing, and thought to be dead? How could you be so blasé and indifferent about your father’s sufferings all these years? The Torah even testifies (Genesis 37:35) that Jacob could not be comforted.”

In life, there are few negative actions that do not have profound ramifications, bringing grief, disgrace or despair upon the innocent.

One who takes another person’s life, not only harms the victim, but also the victim’s family, children, 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 evil or talks negatively of another person, undoubtedly hurts innocent people as well. It is not only the person who speaks the evil and the person about whom the evil is spoken, but also those who hear the evil words, become victims. One who suffers the consequences of evil speech, might lose a job, or lose the respect of others, resulting in their families paying a price as well.

It is almost impossible to trespass one of the Torah’s statutes, without hurting a host of usually innocent people.

This is the message that Joseph was attempting to convey to his brothers. “You thought you were totally justified in trying to get rid of me, but how was it possible all these years for you to neglect to feel for our old father, who never recovered from the loss of a son, and is still grieving back in Canaan?”

“What were you thinking, brothers? How could you not be concerned about Jacob, your own flesh-and-blood, your elderly father?”

These lessons, of course, have broad implications in contemporary times as well. Innocent people pay the price for other people’s mistakes all the time. It is impossible to be too careful or overly concerned for the feelings of the innocent and the impact upon their lives.

Joseph’s brothers eventually learn their lesson, and express regret over what happened to their brother (Genesis 42:21). It is only because of their remorse, that the People of Israel were able to move on, and eventually capture the land of Israel and live there, at least for a period of time, in peace and tranquility.

May you be blessed.