Parshat VaYigash begins with the very famous meeting between Yehuda and Yosef. Yehuda pleads with Yosef not to keep Binyamin, the youngest brother, and offers himself as a slave. At this point, we are told that Yosef could not restrain himself anymore, and he cleared the room so that he could reveal himself to his brothers. Contemplating the sheer drama and emotion of this encounter is stunning! Having been the victim of the brothers, Yosef is now ready for the ultimate confrontation. He can have his cake and eat it too! He can forcibly make them realize that what they did was abominable. They stood in the same position Yosef had been in when they sold him. However, as so many Meforshim note, Yosef takes a surprisingly casual approach in addressing his brothers. He first identifies himself and asks if his father is still alive.
The Beit HaLevi, based on a Midrash, claims that Yosef question was rhetorical. Yosef knew that Yaakov was still alive based upon Yehuda’s recent appeal. Yosef’s question to the brothers was supposed to imply condemnation of their previous actions. It was as if Yosef was asking how his father could have survived the torment of life thinking he had lost his son. The Beit HaLevi also claims that it is as if Yosef was telling the brothers that just as Yaakov had survived all these years without him, so too he can survive without Binyamin. Still, regarding the text itself, Yosef seems to adopt a subtle and soft approach to them. He obviously wants them to see the truth but is waiting to capitalize on the right moment.
As we know, the Torah tells us that Yosef could not restrain himself anymore and felt it was time to reveal himself. What exactly caused this swell of emotion that precipitated this lack of restraint? The Chatam Sofer tells us that at that moment, Yosef saw that things had come full circle. After having been sold, Yosef sees Yehuda ready to sell himself into slavery. The brothers can now identify with their sin, seek forgiveness, and achieve atonement. Again, it should be noted that despite all of this build up, Yosef merely identifies himself as their brother, and proceeds to alleviate their guilt by shifting the focus to what Hashem had planned all along. Yosef actually helped them see that their actions fit beautifully into Hashem’s grand scheme for Bnei Yisrael.
One of the most delicate yet important responsibilities that parents and teachers have is sensitizing the next generation to the presence of Hashem. Hashem does not conveniently appear when a Siddur is opened and then conveniently disappear when the Siddur is closed. Hashem doesn’t only exist once a year when we seek to clear our conscience. Hashem is so real that we may liken Him to the air – surrounding us so much that we don’t even realize it. How can this be shown to someone? It is not as easily demonstrable as some magic trick. This epiphany, this enlightenment, cannot be forced upon someone.
As much as we want to transmit this feeling to someone, we must use equal restraint in our efforts to sensitize. We must nurture our youth to enable them to be prone to feeling this on their own. We must follow the example of Yosef, who maneuvered the circumstances in such a way that when it came time to help the brothers take that final step towards revelation, no verbal clobbering was necessary. Yosef was able to nudge them into the proper zone so that their acceptance would be accomplished willingly.
May we all merit having the same positive effect on our Talmidim and children as Yosef had on his brother, bringing them to a higher realization of Hashem.
(I’d like to thank my Talmid Moshe Azizollohoff for his contribution to this article regarding its Kavanah and title.)