“Where small men succumb, great men overcome.” This meaningful quote, ironically from Terrell Owens (yes, the football player), best describes Yosef’s life. In the last several weeks, we have read about Yosef’s ability to maintain his Emunah, even to resist tremendous temptation, in the face of adversity. After being sold by the brothers, Yosef arrives in Egypt, and credits God with all of his success in the house of Potiphar. Smaller men might abandon God after being treated the way Yosef was by his brothers, especially because (according to some explanations) the brothers sold Yosef in the role of a Beit Din, a Jewish court. But Yosef comes to Egypt and manages to pick himself up, only to face another great challenge. He stands firm with his religious morals, and where does it get him? He is thrown into jail. Is this how God rewards someone for doing the right thing? Smaller men might use this as an excuse, but not Yosef. He continues attributing success to God, this time in the form of his ability to interpret dreams. It is God, proclaims Yosef, who can interpret the dreams of the wine maker, bread baker, and ultimately Pharaoh. After Yosef overcomes all of these tests, he is faced with the ultimate challenge: his brothers stumble into his hands. What younger brother would not dream of the opportunity for revenge on his older brothers? Would any one have blamed Yosef for feeling bitter towards his brothers for the way they treated him?
Instead, the Torah in Parshat Vayigash describes the great sensitivity Yosef shows his brothers both in revealing his identity to them and in easing their move to Egypt. When he is ready to reveal his identity, he invites his brothers to his palace and sends all of his servants out in order to avoid publicly embarrassing his brothers. This gesture demonstrates great self-sacrifice; once his servants leave, Yosef’s life could be in danger. His brothers might attack him immediately in order to save Binyamin. Furthermore, Yosef cannot know what the response of his brothers will be once he reveals his identity. The same brothers who sold him into slavery and then hardly searched for him might want to prevent the disclosure of their terrible misdeed. When Yaakov will find out that Yosef is alive, he will inevitably also find out that the brothers sold him into slavery and lied for years about what had happened. With all these reasons to be afraid, it is even more remarkable that Yosef’s concern for his brothers’ dignity remains more important to him than his own safety. Yosef could not be faulted for not being so sensitive to his brothers, but he again overcomes all excuses.
Yosef’s attention to his brothers’ dignity continues later when the family is reunited in Egypt. Due to dire famine, the Egyptian people sell everything they have to Yosef for food. Yosef takes this opportunity to move around each Egyptian to a foreign locale so that the brothers will not feel like foreigners; after all, with nobody living in his home town, the brothers will feel no different. The Gemara (Chullin 60b) praises Yosef for this great expression of consideration to his brothers. Finally, possibly Yosef’s greatest sacrifice for the sake of not embarrassing his brothers is that for the seventeen years he has lived in Egypt, he has avoided a private encounter with his beloved father. Yosef feared that if he had a private meeting with his father, Yaakov would certainly ask what had happened to him. He did not want to put himself in a situation in which he would have to embarrass the brothers by telling his father the truth. To avoid this, Yosef sacrificed the special relationship he shared with his father.
Yosef symbolizes an ability to deal with adversity head-on and overcome it. He had plenty of excuses to lessen his level of sensitivity, but never used one. As Benjamin Franklin said, “I never knew a man who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else.” Yosef personified an extreme sensitivity, one that even under normal circumstances would be challenging, never mind the circumstances under which he was actually operating. Yosef leaves a legacy of taking all kinds of circumstances, no matter how challenging, and using them not as an excuse, but rather as an opportunity.