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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he said to his brothers, "I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?" (45:3)

The incident of Yosef and his brothers is one of the most difficult chapters in Biblical history to comprehend. It is replete with lessons in human nature, images of commitment to Torah law, and reflections of the values endemic to ethical behavior. Let us attempt to shed some light on the episode in order to glean some of its lessons. The brothers seemed to be confident in their judgment against Yosef. They appeared self-righteous and sure of themselves. Their only concern was their lack of compassion for Yosef as he pleaded with them to spare him. They were distressed about Yosef, but what about their aged father, Yaakov? What about the pain and anguish that had been his constant companion during Yosef's absence? The Bais Halevi posits that this concern is intrinsic to Yosef's question, "Is my father still alive?" He was intimating to them that he could not fathom how his father could have survived the anguish of not knowing Yosef's whereabouts. They seemed concerned with their father's present pain, but where had their concern been in the past?

Let us examine this further. The brothers came to Egypt and were immediately confronted by the Viceroy of Egypt. True, it had been some time since they had last seen Yosef, but how could they not have discerned that this Viceroy was none other than their long-lost brother, Yosef? Furthermore, as the Midrash, cited by Rashi, relates, they told Yosef that they had entered Egypt through ten different gates; they indicated that they had been searching for their lost brother. Apparently, they suspected that somehow Yosef had arrived in Egypt, and they were looking for him. They thought he might have been sold as a slave and was currently still in that same position. When they stood before the Viceroy, why did they not notice some resemblance to Yosef? True, he now had a beard, but did the beard transform him so much that he had become unrecognizable?

The questions go on. One who peruses Chazal will discover that Yosef's behavior vis-?-vis his brothers is plagued with anomalies. From taking Shimon, to the order in which he seated his brothers, how could they not have realized that it was actually Yosef who was speaking to them? The signs were there. Why did they not read them?

Horav David Bliacher, zl, explains that the brothers clearly felt that they were guilty of a wrong - a lack of compassion for Yosef when he begged them to reverse their judgment. This was the only thing for which they felt any onus of guilt. Nothing else! They understood that teshuvah, repentance, was demanded of them, and thus, for twenty-two years they introspected daily. Never once did they feel any guilt for selling Yosef - only for their lack of compassion. For twenty-two years, they did not drink any wine, in order to maintain their clarity of thought to support their judgment concerning the sale of Yosef.

We wonder why, after their travail upon entering Egypt and the various indications that the Viceroy of Egypt was really Yosef, they did not wake up and question their previous rendering of judgment. They now had every reason to believe that they had erred. Why were they denying this reality?

Rav Dovid cites a pasuk in Devarim 1:16, "Listen among your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother," in which Moshe Rabbeinu admonishes the judges to listen to the adversaries and to understand their claims. Chazal add that a judge may not listen to one litigant unless the other litigant is also present to state his claim. The Maharal m'Prague explains that, by nature,once the judge hears one litigant, his mind is oriented towards that perspective. When the second one presents his rebuttal, he is implicitly challenging the judge to change his mind. Human nature is that one resorts to his first opinion. There is much truth to the dictum that one never has a second chance to make a first impression.

The brothers were no different. They had rendered judgment and felt secure that they had meted out righteous justice. They believed in their actions. Hence, anything that occurred that might impugn the integrity of their judgment was - in their minds - inconsequential and meaningless. They were, to quote a Yiddish expression, farkoift, sold, on their opinion. They could stand in front of Yosef and not see him, because the man they had sold as a slave deserved to remain a slave, not become a ruler. This could not be Yosef. Nothing bothered them, except their lack of compassion. They were blameless for any suffering caused by their judgment. We learn from here the importance of taking great care before passing judgment on a person or a situation. Once the judgment is issued, it is often irreversible.

And he (Yosef) fell on his brother Binyamin's neck and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck. (45:14)

The Midrash comments that Yosef and Binyamin wept over the destruction of the various Sanctuaries that would be built in their respective portions in Eretz Yisrael. We must endeavor to understand why, at this moment of heightened joy, they cried over the destructions that would occur in the future. Furthermore, why did each cry for the other one's destruction? What about his own destruction?

The Batei Mikdash were destroyed as a result of unwarranted hatred among brothers. This breach in Jewish society was a demanding accuser against the Jewish People. When Yosef and Binyamin met, they immediately sensed that the breach in their own family catalyzed Yosef's separation from Binyamin and his other brothers. This reality caused them to think of the future churban, destruction, that would affect their descendants. This awareness brought them both to bitter weeping.

The effect of sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred, is rectified through an increase of brotherly love, to the point that one feels his friend's pain even more than his own. Therefore, each brother wept for his respective brother's destruction. Moreover, even though the Mikdash in Binyamin's territory would not be built until after the Mishkan in Yosef's territory was destroyed, Binyamin nevertheless wept for Yosef's churban, destruction. He would rather that it be his Mikdash if that would prevent the destruction of his brother's Mishkan. This represents the zenith of love and sensitivity between brothers.

Thinking of others even before they thought of themselves was the hallmark of our gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders. They distinguished themselves in the sensitivity they demonstrated to their fellow man, despite the apparent hardship it caused them. Rabbi Yechiel Spero has a number of stories in his Touched by a Story 2 which relate this virtue. I have selected two which are especially poignant to emphasize this character trait.

The Piaseczner Rebbe, zl, was a human being of unique character. A man of great personal strength, he exemplified faith, courage and self-sacrifice under the most trying conditions. As mentor to many during the war years in the Warsaw Ghetto, he inspired his chasidim with hope and optimism, amid grief and anguish. He suffered personal losses that were devastating. Yet, his faith was unswerving until the very last moment when he himself was led to his death.

It was shortly after Yom Kippur, and the relentless shelling was bombarding the ghetto on a regular basis. The Rebbe's daughter and son-in-law had been running for shelter when the building in which they had been hiding collapsed on them. They did not die immediately, but wavered between life and death for a few days, until the first day of Succos when their pure souls ascended to Heaven. The Rebbe heard the tragic news shortly before he was to lead his chasidim in the Yom Tov davening. His reaction was characteristic of his enormous inner strength. He sang the traditional cheerful melodies that were so much a part of the Yom Tov ritual. When he came to Hallel, he turned to the congregation and sang Min Ha'meitzar, "From the depths I call to You, Hashem. Please answer me with expansiveness, Hashem. Hashem is with me, I have no fear, because what can man do to me?" These words of David Hamelech aptly described the Rebbe's essence. He embraced Hashem at all times.

The war years destroyed people's ethics and mentchlichkeit, as well as their lives. Honorable, decent human beings were suddenly transformed into morally deficient felons. A lamentable incident occurred that demonstrated this situation. A hapless person, who had fallen to the nadir of depravity, was caught rifling through the clothes of the Rebbe's recently deceased children. While this was a depraved and corrupt act, we must understand that this person had already probably lost everything - money, family and friends. His sense of self-respect had long ago been destroyed by the Nazi beasts. The Gestapo handcuffed him and hauled him down to the jail, declaring that he was enroute to the gallows.

The Rebbe was notified of this tragedy as he was about to begin the funeral for his beloved children. His reaction was typical: He turned around and, with a fiery passion in his eyes, ran from the funeral, declaring, "We must immediately go and save this man from the Nazis. We may not allow another Jew to fall prey to the Nazis."

"But, Rebbe, it is dangerous to go into the lion's den." The Gestapo headquarters was one place the Rebbe should not visit. His own life would be in peril. The Rebbe would not hear anything negative. A Jew's life was in danger; he had to attempt to save him. The Rebbe suspended the funeral and proceeded to the jail. He risked his life to save another Jew - the same Jew who had previously shown little respect for the dead. Several hours later, the Rebbe returned to bury his children, after having saved the life of a Jew. Sensitivity towards another person knows no bounds.

In the next story, we note how a Torah giant, during his own moment of grief, demonstrated incredible sensitivity for the dignity of another Jew. After the funeral of Horav Moshe Shisgal, zl, his father-in-law, the venerable Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, proceeded to another funeral that was taking place on the other side of the cemetery instead of walking towards the exit. When he was directed towards the exit, Rav Moshe simply nodded that he was aware of the direction of the exit; he had to attend another funeral. Where the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, goes, the public follows. Suddenly, the gadol ha'dor and an overflow crowd were in attendance at a small funeral at the other end of the cemetery.

Rav Moshe seemed pleased with the attendance at the funeral, remarking to those close by, "This other man who passed away was a member of the same community as my son-in-law. As a result of the conflicting times, he probably had a much smaller funeral than expected. Why should he be at a disadvantage simply because his funeral took place on the same day as that of my son-in-law? If I attend his funeral, all those who are with me will follow suit. Thus, he will be accorded the tribute he deserves."

This is but one more vignette about an individual who distinguished himself, not only in Torah knowledge, but also in Torah ethics.

And he (Yosef) went up to meet Yisrael, his father, to Goshen… and he fell upon his neck and wept on his neck continuously. (46:29)

Rashi adds that Yaakov Avinu did not reciprocate by falling on Yosef's neck and crying, since he was reciting the Shema. This statement begs elucidation. Surely, if it was time for the mitzvah, Yosef should also have been reciting the Shema. In his commentary to the Torah, Gur Aryeh, the Maharal explains that when Yaakov saw his beloved son Yosef, serving as Viceroy over Egypt, his heart filled with love and fear of Hashem, as he understood how everything He does is designed to reward those who fear Him. Everything that had transpired during the past years, the various trials and travails, suddenly all fit into place, catalyzing a wonderful ending to the story of the missing Yosef. The pious devotees of Hashem have a practice that when they are the recipients of Hashem's favor, they cleave to Him and thank Him for all the good that He has done for them. This is represented by reciting the Shema, which emphasizes the unity of the kingdom of Heaven, as well as the love we must manifest for it. It was appropriate for Yaakov to recite Shema when he saw Yosef, after all of the anguish the he sustained as a result of the loss of his son. Now that he saw him in his glory as ruler over Egypt, he loved Hashem for what He had done for him. He, therefore, accepted His kingship and His love and His fear upon himself. Although it was not zman Krias Shema, time for reciting the Krias Shema, Yaakov demonstrated a spontaneous gesture of love for Hashem which was relevant to his current circumstances.

In an alternative approach, the Shem Mi'Shmuel suggests that Yaakov had another reason for reciting the Shema - a reason that was applicable only to him and not to Yosef. Yaakov Avinu's descent to Egypt marked the beginning of a dark period in Jewish history: the Egyptian exile. The Ramban underscores this fact when he writes that Yaakov perceived that the galus, exile, about to begin for him and his descendants. He was frightened and, therefore, offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father, Yitzchak, so that the attribute of Din, Strict Justice, would not be stretched out before him.

Yaakov Avinu was acutely aware that his descendants could not withstand the effects of middas ha'Din. At the moment of entry to Egypt, he took steps to ameliorate the strict Din. This was achieved through his reciting of the Shema, a prayer which declares the individual's acceptance of the unity of G-d and states his love for Him. Thus, Yaakov was able to reach beyond the Din to invoke Hashem's mercy for his descendants.

There is a powerful lesson to be derived from here. The beginning of any activity or endeavor is critical. Indeed, the success of the entire campaign depends on the quality of its inception. Yaakov sought to ensure that the Egyptian exile commenced with a declaration of faith in the unity of G-d and in Yaakov's love for Him. This would guarantee that it would be a dominant theme throughout the entire exile. This would, hopefully, engender the idea that throughout Klal Yisrael's travails in Egypt, their primary experience would be one of Divine mercy triumphing over strict justice.

In this instance Yosef was different from Yaakov. While Yosef surely was overjoyed to reunite with his father, undoubtedly his feelings of love and gratitude were also directed Heavenward. There was, however, one primary difference: Yosef was already in exile. He had lived in Egypt for quite some time, and, as such, he was not commencing a new experience, as his father was. Therefore, reciting Shema would not have fulfilled the same function for Yosef as it would have for Yaakov. Yosef wept upon his father, while Yaakov remained aloof, reciting Krias Shema and connecting with the Divine.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'tatzileinu mi'din kasheh - save us…from a harsh judgment.

Simply, this refers to a harsh judgment in a court of law. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, adds a practical interpretation. We are judged by people all of the time, either in our interrelationships or by our actions. We are judged by what we do and with whom we choose to associate. We ask that people judge us l'chaf zchus, in a positive light, giving us the benefit of the doubt. It is so easy to malign someone simply because he "hangs around" with the wrong element. We do not stop to think why this person is associating with someone of a "lesser" stature. If we do not receive beneficial treatment from our fellow man, we are said to suffer a din kasheh, harsh judgment.

u'mibaal din kasheh - and from a harsh opponent.

A plaintiff may have a legitimate claim against another person, but if he pursues it in a harsh and merciless manner, he is a baal din kasheh, harsh opponent. A landlord may have a legitimate claim against his tenant, but this does not give him license to evict him in the cold of winter. Even when one is justified in his complaint against another person, he must act with flexibility and an air of compromise - or else animosity and unwarranted hatred will be the dominant themes.

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