December 6, 2007
Even the subtlest slight deserves a challenge
Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
It happens to all of us. You are with friends, engaged in small talk, and then someone makes a disparaging comment about a common acquaintance. You didn't
see the insult coming, but there it is. It's entered the conversation.
What should you do? Should you challenge the slight or let it go by unaddressed?
Before you can process your thoughts, the small talk has moved on to another subject -- the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the latest presidential debate, the writers' strike. The insult remains unchallenged.
In parshat Miketz, Joseph faces the same dilemma -- and he essentially freezes.
In a whirlwind turn of events, he is taken from his prison cell to interpret the Pharaoh's dreams about fat and emaciated cows, fat and emaciated ears of grain, and soon he is viceroy of Egypt. As Rav Avigdor Miller teaches, the entire dream sequence was a Divine gift to open the door for a series of events to unfold that would result in the unfathomable: a decision by the grand Pharaoh to allow an extended family of approximately 70 immigrants to be given their own canton in Egypt, where they could grow and evolve as a people, safely enough isolated from the rest of society to retain their language, their manners of dress, their names as well as their values and traditions.
Soon, Joseph becomes supplier of food to all of Egypt, and his influence progressively extends throughout the region. Our rabbis tell us in Tractate Pesachim 119a, for example, that he ultimately ingathered into Egypt all the gold and silver in the known world as he doled out food -- first for money, later for land and indenture.
In time, his brothers arrive, sent by patriarch Jacob to seek food. When they arrive, they don't recognize Joseph, although Joseph recognizes them.
Some say that when Joseph was sold into slavery at 17 he had not yet grown significant facial hair, so his new full beard effectively masked his appearance. Presumably it was easier for Joseph to spot Issachar and Zevulun, who were proximate to Joseph's age when he was sold into slavery, because they were among the other brothers he knew and recognized. The Chasam Sofer adds that Hashem aided Joseph's effort to disguise himself, placing in Pharaoh's head the idea of changing Joseph's name to Tzafnat Panayach (Genesis 41:45). Had the brothers been introduced to an Egyptian Viceroy named Joseph, well....
Joseph chose to play hardball rather than disclose his identity. In part, he knew that his brothers' "first impression" of him -- dating to boyhood -- was that of "little Joey," and he needed to redefine that first impression by getting them accustomed to fearing him, even prostrating, so that they ultimately would follow his plan to relocate them in Goshen.
Further, to protect his plan of disguise, he accused the brothers of being spies. Our rabbis tell us that Joseph harbored concerns that the brothers would snoop around Egypt, looking for their long-lost sibling. Therefore, to protect his secret, he acted to stop them in their tracks, accusing them of espionage. That very accusation compelled them to stop asking questions around town.
Joseph and the brothers converse briefly during each of their two visits for food. In the first round, he levels his accusations and eventually sends them on their way with instructions to bring back Benjamin. The second time, they are back -- this time with Benjamin -- and again they banter. And then come words that Joseph did not anticipate; they are simple words but with a terrible sting. He asks the brothers "Is your elderly father, about whom you told me, at peace?" And they respond: "Your servant -- our father -- is at peace. He still lives" (Genesis 43:27-28).
Joseph did not see that response coming. He may even have missed its import. But our rabbis in Sotah 13b point a laser at it: Joseph heard his father being ever slightly denigrated, described as his "servant," and he did not say anything to elevate his father Jacob's honor. He let the term pass. "Your servant -- our father."
It certainly would have been quirky for the viceroy of Egypt to have demonstrated humility. But that was the call of the hour.
Joseph allowed his father's honor to pass undefended at that moment. Our rabbis teach that, later in his life, Joseph's own honor was downgraded. In contrast to Jacob, who instructed his sons to "carry me" after death from Egypt back to the Holy Land for burial (Genesis 47:30), Joseph instructed his brothers to "carry my bones" from this place after his death for burial (Genesis 50:25). In the end, Jacob would end his days with the dignity of his personage intact. And Joseph would die, speaking only of the bones he would be leaving behind.
Clearly, Joseph lived and died a great man -- Joseph the Tzadik, we have called him throughout history -- but the lesson is instructive.
A person's name is his or her greatest asset. His honor and dignity are his greatest resources and treasures. Any slight to that name carries a steep price. And anyone who hears an unjustified disparagement and lets it pass by unanswered is an accessory.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.