Keeping Silent

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

A common question at the core of the story of Yosef and his brothers is why Yosef never attempted to inform his father of his whereabouts. While he may have harbored animosity towards his brothers, he surely held no such feelings towards his father. Why wouldn’t he at least relay the message that he was alive?

In the well known commentary the אור החיים (R. Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar, Morocco, Algeria and Israel 1696-1743), he compounds the question. He writes:

ותגדל עוד הקושיא על ימי הרעב שהיו עוברים ושבים מארץ מצרים לארץ כנען ולא חש על צערו ועוד
מי התיר לו אחר שבאו אחיו להאריך לו ימי צרה שלא להודיעו תיכף ומיד

To make the question even greater, what of the time of great famine that the family kept going back and forth between Egypt and Israel?

Also, who permitted him (i.e. Yosef) to not inform his brothers of his identity immediately upon their arrival?

Not only did Yosef cause his father more suffering by not informing him that he was alive, he allowed Yaakov and his family to struggle through a difficult famine for well over a year before giving them the peace of mind of knowing that they would be taken care of. Why would he do that to his father?

To answer this question, the אור החיים breaks up Yosef’s time in Egypt into two segments. He explains that in Yosef’s first 14 years in Egypt he was either a slave or a prisoner. He had no power or ability to send messages, and even if he did he would be afraid that the brothers would intercept the message before reaching Yaakov and send someone to kill him to maintain the lie they had been telling their father.

However, what of the final eight years? In a fascinating study, he writes:

וחש על כבוד האחים מלביישם לפני יעקב ויצחק וכל זרע יעקב וסבל שישאר אביו בצערו מלביישם

Yosef was concerned for the honor of his brothers, not wanting to embarrass them before Yaakov, Yitzchak and all of their children. He ultimately thought it was better for his father to be in pain than to embarrass them.

Yosef was in a complicated predicament. He needed to figure out whether his father would rather be kept in the dark but maintain the dignity of his family, or know the truth and risk the family being torn apart. He decided it would be best for his brothers, and ultimately his father, for his being sold into slavery to remain a secret, a secret they kept until Yaakov’s dying day.

Sometimes in life the greatest courage is doing what is best for someone even though you can never tell them what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Yosef kept silent, knowing the pain it caused his father, because he was confident he was helping his father in a much greater way. May we always have that level of thoughtfulness, courage and sensitivity in our most difficult moral decisions.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is the Resident Scholar at Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side and on the faculty of Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls.

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