ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אותו כי נבהלו מפניו, “And his brothers could not answer him, for they were disconcerted before him” (45:3).
Rashi comments that the brothers were disconcerted due to the shame they felt for selling Yosef. Rav Moshe Feinstein adds that they were only ashamed of selling Yosef now that he caught them, but they were not ashamed of the act beforehand.
The Torah Temima cites the Gemara in Chagiga (4b), which states that R’ Eliezer cried when he read our verse: “If the rebuke of man is so powerful that they [the brothers] are ashamed and at a loss for words, how much more powerful must be the rebuke of Hashem!” The Chida comments that Bilam, the Navi of the Goyim, was not even able to stomach the rebuke of his donkey! He adds that Yosef did not actually say any words of rebuke: he just let his brothers know who he was, and that was enough to shake them. Just think — Hashem knows every hidden detail of everyone’s life.
Tehillim 50:21 says, אוכיחך ואערכה לעינך, “I will reprove you and set the cause before your eyes.” The Chida expounds on the Rama’s commentary on this Pasuk, saying that this expresses a profound Chiddush: אוי לנו מיום התוכחה אף בלי דין, “Woe is to us on the day of rebuke and reproof even if it does not include strict judgment!”
We often try to avoid problems instead of solving them. We are afraid of getting caught, not of doing something for someone else, or of doing something we should not have done that adversely impacted another individual. When this happens, we try to avoid the person involved. We forget that instead of being afraid of the person (or Hashem), we should be fearful of the act itself. We should not think, “I am only in trouble if I get caught.” When one does the wrong thing, the shame of the act itself should cause him to admit and repent.
There is a story of a man who visited a prison and asked each inmate what he had done wrong. Each inmate responded similarly: “I did nothing wrong; I do not know why I am imprisoned.” Finally, he came to one inmate who responded that he had robbed and was rightfully imprisoned. The man turned to the guard and said, “Let this man out; he has no business hanging around with all these innocent people.”
In a Shiur delivered at Congregation Beth Aaron several weeks ago, Rabbi Chanoch Teller repeatedly emphasized that if we do not realize that what we have done is wrong and are not ashamed of our actions, we cannot fix our mistakes. The idea is not to wait until our past can scare us, but to straighten what is crooked as soon as possible. If we do this, will find ourselves happier, better people for it.
Mishlei teaches that an evil person’s deeds are righteous in his own eyes. אוי לנו מיום התוכחה, unless we truly make a great effort to amend our ways, we will be quite surprised when the day of reproof comes and we find out all the things we did wrong. One should look at himself through the eyes of his best friend. If his best friend saw him do this action, would he still feel that he acted correctly? Imagine the day of reproof the moment before you act: if you are not ashamed of the act itself, perhaps you will be ashamed of being caught in the act by your friend or by Hashem. Ponder the opinion that Gehenom is your most private, embarrassing moment being exposed for all to see.