Parashat VaYigash begins with an epic confrontation between Yehudah and Yosef, in which Yehudah battles tirelessly against Yosef to secure the release of his younger brother Binyamin, and Yosef acts as a cruel and unwavering tyrant (BeReishit 44:18-34). Yehudah’s primary argument is that he is attempting to preclude the inevitable pain and sorrow that would be experienced by an old and frail father should Yosef choose to not acquiesce the brothers’ request – “VeHayah KiRe’oto Ki Ein HaNa’ar VaMeit VeHoridu Avadecha Et Seivat Avdecha Avinu BeYagon She’olah,” “It will happen that when he sees the youth is missing he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoariness of your servant, our father, in sorrow to the grave” (44:31).
After this emotional plea, Yosef responds, “Ani Yosef HaOd Avi Chai,” “I am Yosef; is my father still alive?” After this shocking response, “VeLo Yachlu Echav La’anot Oto Ki Nivhalu MiPanav,” “But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him” (45:3).
The BeReishit Rabbah (93:10) has a fascinating insight into the brothers’ inability to answer Yosef. Yosef was the smallest of the tribes, yet his brothers were unable to respond to him. When Hashem will one day rebuke us for who we truly are, we will be even less capable of responding than were Yosef’s brothers. “Woe to us for the day of judgment. W oe to us for the day of rebuke.”
The Midrash raises certain fundamental and obvious questions. What was the exact rebuke which Yosef offered to his brothers that completely silenced them? Additionally, how did this rebuke serve as a warning signal for our inevitable judgment with Hashem?
The Beit HaLevi offers a penetrating insight into this perplexing Midrash. The entire thrust of Yehudah’s argument was the overwhelming concern for the welfare of his father; after all, Yehudah argued that it would be inconceivable to separate Binyamin from his elderly father. This shows that Yehudah had compassion for his father. In one sentence, however, Yosef highlighted the inherent fallacy in Yehudah’s argument. Yosef proclaimed, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” If the brothers truly cared about their father, where was their concern during the sale of Yosef? The sale caused unimaginable pain and grief unto their father. “I am Yosef” was the strong reminder of the actions that the brothers took against their father. Because of Yosef’s biting response, the brothers’ arguments faded away and the brothers were forced into an utter silence.
All of us will eventually need to explain all the actions that we performed during our lifetimes. During our lifetimes, we often make rationalizations or justifications for failing to fulfill our spiritual ambitions. Once we face Hashem’s judgement, however, all rationalizations and justifications will quickly dissipate. The inherent fallacies in our excuses will be brought to full focus. The rebuke of Yosef should inspire and empower us to lead consistent and truthful lifestyles as we strive for greater spiritual heights.