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When the Fog Lifts

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

In retrospect, we will understand everything

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


As soon as Yosef revealed himself, his brothers could no longer hide behind their wall of self-justifications and twisted logic. How do we relate if our manufactured worldview collapses around us?


Every week, we have a precious mirror into our lives, in the form of the parshah. With spiritual sensors, we discover feelings, ideas, and truths that a superficial reading would never reveal. One of the most dramatic passages in the entire Chumash is the revelation of Yosef to his brothers: “And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?’ And his brothers could not answer him, for they were alarmed by his presence” (Bereishis 45:3).

This staggering announcement came at the climax of great tension. The atmosphere was one of unbearable emotional strain, with a sense that something transformational was about to erupt. The brothers had been brought before him, crushed and defeated. To all appearances, Binyamin’s guilt had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. A goblet belonging to the viceroy had been found in his bag, and with a sense of resignation they said to Yosef, “What can we say to my lord, what words shall we speak, and by what shall we justify ourselves? G-d has found out your servants’ sin, both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found” (44:16).

The viceroy, however, had other plans.

“Far be it from me to do this! The man in whose possession the goblet was found, he shall be my slave, but as for you, go up in peace to your father.”

But they had promised their father that they would bring Binyamin, the child of his old age, back to him — whatever it took. Now, at the crucial moment, came this pronouncement that they would go free, but Binyamin would be imprisoned. The brothers united behind Yehudah and geared themselves for the final battle, as Yosef watched: Would they stand up for their father’s beloved Binyamin, Rachel’s second son, at all costs, or would they abandon him, as they did Yosef? Yehudah’s opening volley expresses the intensity of that battle:

“And Yehudah stepped up to him.” The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, parshas Vayigash, 150) tells us that Yehudah had three intentions, for whatever the situation called for: war, reconciliation, or prayer. All three conditions are included in this exchange. His remarks included both conciliatory words, designed to calm this strange Egyptian ruler’s raging emotions, and an implied determination to fight to the bitter end for Binyamin’s life and liberty.

And then, just before the climactic moment when the atmosphere of hostility and tension in the palace was so thick, Yosef looks at the brothers who are lined up, glaring at him, and shocks them with the announcement, “I am Yosef! Is my father still living?”

Why, indeed, were Yosef’s brothers alarmed? What caused them to be so paralyzed that they couldn’t respond immediately?

Yosef’s announcement made them suddenly aware of the greatest mistake of their lives. Their entire attitude toward Yosef had been completely wrong. They had been confident of being in the right when they sold him. “And we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!” they had said to each other. And now here they were, standing before him. He was royalty. The dreams had come true.

When a person suddenly realizes that he’s been wrong all his life, he feels a burning, relentless shame. And especially so, when the subject of his shame is standing right before him. All the excuses, explanations, and theories by which he has justified his deeds until now fall away in the face of the new reality. The brothers stood there in the palace under Yosef’s gaze, and they felt utterly exposed and ashamed of themselves.

Our Sages, with their finely tuned perceptions, immediately understood the brothers’ position and were able to identify with it; they even took it one step further: This is how they would look on the day they passed on to the Next World, facing absolute truth, which could never be fooled by fanciful stories from the encyclopedia of self-justification. These men of truth were shaken by the pasuk that we read so detachedly. The brothers’ shame at the critical moment reminded them of something else as well.

The brothers were very confused when they went down to Egypt. They didn’t know how to interpret the strange behavior of the man appointed to rule over the land. Why was he singling them out and accusing them of spying? Why did they find the money they had paid for the grain inside the sacks they had purchased? Why did the ruler want to see Binyamin, in particular? Why did he make a royal feast for them? And how did it unfold that Binyamin, whom the ruler seemed so fond of, became the one accused of stealing the goblet? They felt they had fallen into a maze of inexplicable madness, with no way out.

But when they heard the words, “I am Yosef,” all their questions disappeared in an instant. They needed no explanation of his behavior. Those two words dispelled the fog, and the entire riddle was solved. Suddenly, it all made sense.

The Chofetz Chaim explains:

“We, too, like Yosef’s brothers, run about in confusion, full of questions as a pomegranate is full of seeds. G-d’s conduct is utterly incomprehensible to us. Why does a righteous person have troubles while a wicked one has a good time? Why does evil dominate the world? Why must the Jewish People suffer? And so on, and so forth. But one thing is clear: On the day of Redemption, when the tidings of truth will be heard from one end of the world to the other, ‘I, Hashem, have not changed’ (Malachi 3:6), then the curtain will go up, and all the questions will disappear as though they’d never been. In retrospect, we will understand everything, from the new perspective that we’ll be given — just like Yosef’s brothers.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 739)


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