It was one of the most dramatic conversations in history. Twenty-two years after being sold as a slave by his siblings, Yosef Hatzaddik, now the de facto ruler of Egypt, was about to reveal his true identity to his brothers. First, however, he cried so loudly that his voice was heard in Pharaoh’s palace.
“I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” he then said to his brothers.
It is understandable that he was very emotional, but why did Yosef cry so? He had already spent some time with his brothers — though they were unaware of who he was — and had been preparing for this moment. If anything, one would think his brothers, who had so drastically misjudged him, would be the ones to cry uncontrollably.
In his sefer Megaleh Tzefunos, Harav Eliyahu of Izhmir, zt”l (known as the author of Shevet Mussar), gives a fascinating explanation.
It wasn’t the idea of reuniting with his brothers that caused Yosef to weep so, but the knowledge that once he disclosed his identity, his father and brothers would come down to Egypt and the galus of Mitzrayim would begin.
He immediately sought, however, to put his brothers at ease, pointing out that they wouldn’t be feeling the galus immediately. During the lifetime of Yaakov Avinu, the Egyptians would be unable to begin their persecution of Bnei Yisrael, and even afterward, as long as he, Yosef, would live, Bnei Yisrael would not be maltreated. This is hinted at in the words “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”
Yosef was fully cognizant of the fact that he had been sold to Egypt to fulfill a crucial mission; through his mesirus nefesh, he made it possible for all the Bnei Yisrael to spiritually survive in a land filled with immorality. This, too, Yosef alluded to in his words to his brothers.
Chazal list several reasons why Bnei Yisrael merited to eventually leave Egypt, among them that they didn’t change their names or their spoken language, and they refrained from speaking lashon hara.
“I am Yosef,” he told them. Even though Pharaoh had granted him an Egyptian name, Tzafnas Paanei’ach, he had insisted on using the name Yosef, setting an example for Bnei Yisrael.
He later specifically stressed, “It is my mouth that is speaking to you.” He spoke to them in Lashon Hakodesh, again paving the way for Bnei Yisrael to do likewise.
After he saw that his brothers could not answer him because they were disconcerted before him, he said to them, “Come close to me if you please.” He asked them to approach so that he would not speak about his being sold in front of Binyamin, who was not part of that incident. This, in turn, gave Bnei Yisrael the ability to refrain from speaking lashon hara as well. (Based on the Kli Yakar)
Yosef wept because of the exile that was coming, but at the same time, he gave assurances that Bnei Yisrael would survive this galus as well.
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The Gemara (Chagigah 4b) says, “When Rabi Eliezer would reach the passuk ‘But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him,’ he would cry, and say, ‘If the rebuke of a flesh and blood [being] is such, rebuke from Hakadosh Baruch Hu all the more so.’”
The Midrash tells us: “Abba Cohen Bardla said, ‘Woe to us from the day of judgment, woe to us from the day of rebuke. … Yosef was [one of the] smallest of the Shevatim, and yet they could not withstand his rebuke … When Hakadosh Baruch Hu will come and rebuke each one according to his actions, all the more so.”
Hagaon Harav Avraham Yaakov Pam, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, would point out that the entire approach of Yosef Hatzaddik was not one of rebuke but rather of reconciliation, as the subsequent pesukim state. “And now, be not distressed, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. …” Then what, indeed, was the rebuke?
Harav Pam suggests that the rebuke was two words: “Ani Yosef.”
Yosef Hatzaddik did not intend to rebuke them. He was merely revealing to them his identity. But in the process, he was handing them a powerful rebuke.
His brothers had mocked his dreams of becoming a king, certain that they were part of the foolishness of youth. They then sold him and he ended up in Egypt. Suddenly it was revealed to them how drastically they had misjudged him. His dreams had been accurate after all — he was now a ruler in Egypt, and the person who would support them. They discovered how wrong they had been about him. They saw the love Hashem had for him, for he had been chosen as the messenger from Shamayim to provide sustenance for the world. And to think that they had mistreated such a person!
This was the powerful rebuke.
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We rarely, if ever, have the ability to ascertain the true value of another Jew. Unaware of that Yid’s mission and his particular circumstances, we can easily misunderstand his actions and misinterpret his words. Though we have no inkling of the loftiness of the Shevatim, the story of Yosef Hatzaddik and his brothers is an eternal lesson about how we should view another Jew.