Parshas Vayigash - That's Embarrasing

By Reb Eliezer Bulka

Posted on 12/22/17

This Shabbos is the yahrtzeit of my wife's grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Israel Frankel, a"h. This week's shtikle is dedicated le'iluy nishmaso, Yisroel Aryeh ben Asher Yeshayahu.

Before Yoseif reveals his true identity to his brothers, (45:1), he calls everyone else to leave the room so as not to embarrass his brothers when he reveals himself (Rashi). The midrash (93:9) quotes, "Rebi Chama bar Chanina said, Yoseif did not act accordingly for if any one of the brothers had kicked him, he would have died instantly." By sending out all his men, Yoseif forfeited all the security that he had and left himself vulnerable to the brothers, if they had gotten angry at him which, apparently, they already were. What bothered me about this midrash is that the gemara (Sotah 10b) derives from the episode of Yehudah and Tamar (see Rashi 38:25) that it is better to have yourself thrown in a fire in order not to embarrass your friend in public. If so, even if Yoseif was putting his life in danger, was it not the right thing to do under the circumstances, rather than embarrass his brothers?

On a simplistic level, it can be suggested that the midrash is speaking merely from a strategic perspective. Yoseif was putting himself in danger by secluding himself with his brothers. The gemara is where the moral and ethical component is discussed.

However, on closer inspection, this situation with Yoseif is in fact distinctly different from that of Yehudah and Tamar. In Tamar's situation, she was able to put the ball completely in Yehudah's court by presenting all of the evidence to him. She was able to say to him, "If you do not wish to put yourself through embarrassment, then I am willing to have myself thrown to the fire." Tamar was prepared to die but she did not make this decision on her own. Conversely, the brothers were not aware of the potential embarrassment. Yoseif had no way of presenting them this ultimatum. The lesson of the gemara is that the embarrasser must be prepared to die but that is only if the embarrassee so desires. It was therefore wrong of Yoseif to make himself vulnerable for he had no way of knowing if his brother's "preferred" his death over embarrassment. One would have to assume that if after killing the Egyptian viceroy the brothers found out they had killed Yoseif, they would have been quite regretful.