Piercing our self-rectitude to judge ourselves honestly

Genesis 44:18-47:27

Ezekiel 37:15-28

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

One of the most poignant and dramatic moments in the entire Torah narrative appears in Vayigash, this week's parashah. Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, clears his court and reveals his true identity to his brothers who are literally dumbstruck. "And Joseph said, 'I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?' But his brothers could not answer him because they were left afraid before him" (Genesis 45:3).

Rabbi Eliezer when he reached this verse would cry. He would say, "If one is rebuked by flesh and blood (and reacts in this manner) how much more so when the Almighty will rebuke us!"

Many commentaries wonder wherein lies the rebuke in Joseph's simple declaration and question. There was, after all, not even a reference here to Joseph having been sold into bondage. Equally puzzling is the fact that Joseph certainly was already well aware of his father's status when he asked the question. In interviewing his brothers earlier, he had quite pointedly asked them, "How is your aged father of whom you have spoken? Is he still alive?"

Moreover, Judah had pleaded with Joseph not to imprison Benjamin because his father, Jacob, would not survive the loss of another son. The Malbim explains that the repetition of the questions is brimming with rebuke.

Implicit in the question "Is my father still alive?" is another question: Now you are concerned with father's welfare? Did you consider that he might not survive my loss when you sold me into captivity? The brothers could not answer this question because of their enormous fear and guilt.

The revelation of Joseph consists of just two words. Joseph declares, "Ani Yoseph, I am Joseph." When G-d will reveal himself to mankind, He, too, will use but two words, "Ani HaShem, I am G-d."

These sets of two succinct words have the power to pierce the armor of our self-assurance and to dispel our doubts. The brothers had been so firmly convinced of their rectitude and so self-righteous in their anger toward Joseph. Yet all of these feelings immediately evaporated once he said, "I am Joseph". So it will be when G-d simply states, "I am G-d," thereby defusing all of our anger and all of our self-righteousness and doubts.

Joseph didn't accuse his brothers so much as he allowed them to be their own accusers and their own judges. So it will be on the great Day of Judgment. Our sages say that in the great Heavenly Court, each man will judge himself. All of his excuses and rationalizations will melt away and the facts, the deeds, the words of his life will speak for themselves. Like the brothers our lives will appear glaringly before us and we will fall into abashed silence.

By revealing himself, Joseph actually created a moment of self-recognition on the part of his brothers. There is nothing more frightening for anyone than such a moment when a person is forced to recognize who he really is.

The Midrash in the name of Abba Kohen Bardela states, " Woe to us on the Day of Judgment and Woe to us on the Day of Reproof. When G-d will reveal Himself to each one according to what he is with the words 'I am G-d' how great will be our humiliation". What is the significance of the emphasis of "each one according to what he is"? Rabbi Elemelech Muller citing the Messilas Yesharim explains it this way:

Each of us must come to understand that we have a particular duty to fulfill in this world, a specific goal set for us for which we must strive to achieve. On the Day of Judgment each of us will have to answer for our failure to have lived up to our own unique charge. G-d demands that we each reach our own potential, which has been tailored specifically to us. No one will be asked, "Why were you not Moses?" We will instead be asked, "Why didn't you become yourself?"

Each of us has an obligation to use all of the wherewithal with which we have been endowed to investigate and assess and determine our personal mission in life and then to realize its achievement.

Shabbat shalom.