Yosef in Control

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The “deception” comes to an end in Parshas Vayigash when Yehudah’s plea seemingly instigates the revelation of Yosef’s true identity to his brothers. In this one moment, Yosef’s plan comes to fruition, and the future of Judaism is saved. However, right before that moment of disclosure, Yosef makes a strange request — he calls for all the Egyptians in the room to leave. As we will soon see, this was more than simply the desire for privacy with his family. In fact, we are drawn into the mind of Yosef as he contemplates the consequences of this dramatic moment. 

It seems Yosef was ready to break down (Bereishis 45:1-2):

“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, "Take everyone away from me!" So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

One could easily deduce that Yosef’s response was due to his inability to maintain any sort of emotional control. Why was it critical to have everyone leave the room?  Rashi (along with the Ibn Ezra) offers one explanation (ibid):

“He could not bear that Egyptians would stand beside him and hear his brothers being embarrassed when he would make himself known to them.”

Saving the brothers from more embarrassment seems to be a noble objective. However, we have to keep one important point in mind. Part of Yosef’s plan was to bring the brothers onto the path of teshuva, repentance.  When studying the words of the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva (4:5), we see that admitting one’s sins in a public manner, which is clearly more embarrassing, is considered a praiseworthy action. In other words, one could surmise that additional embarrassment would be of great benefit to the overall teshuva process the brothers were supposed to be engaged in. Therefore, we can ask why Yosef was so concerned about the greater shame that would occur if the Egyptians in the room remained. 

Onkelos offers what one might consider to be the explanation closest to the literal understanding of the events. He uses the word “leaschesana”, which means that Yosef was unable to remain strong. However, we can ask again why it was critical for him to clear the room of all non-family members.

Finally, the Ramban offers his own very unique explanation. He seems to agree with Onkelos’s definition as referring to some type of control. However, the context is completely different. Those Egyptians in attendance were observing the back and forth, and were expressing their clear sympathies with the brothers. The inability here was not in Yosef’s self-control; rather, it was the inability to control the crowd. He therefore throws everyone out of the room. The Ramban continues, offering a critical explanation for why it was necessary to clear the room. Yosef was concerned about the fallout that would occur if those in the room heard about the events surrounding the sale of Yosef. The probable reaction would be that these brothers of the Viceroy of Egypt were cruel and evil people, and that there could be no room for such people in Egypt. Furthermore, it would erode any trust they had in Yosef as their leader. It was imperative for Yosef, according to the Ramban, to do whatever he could to keep the details of the events surrounding Yosef’s youth out of the local press, so to speak. 

Each of these interpretations requires a deeper explanation. Looking at Rashi first, we are faced with Yosef’s concern for the high level of embarrassment that would occur if he would expose his identity to his brothers in the presence of the Egyptians. At the same time, we know that public embarrassment is a kiyum (plus) of sorts in the teshuva process. The answer lies in what made this situation unique. Normally, a person recognizes his sin, undergoes introspection, understands to a greater degree his relationship with the Creator, and then performs viduy, confession to God. When following these steps, viduy should be done publicly. However, this scenario is different. The brothers were indeed on the path to teshuva, but they were being “guided” along by Yosef. And with Yosef’s revelation, all of a sudden the brothers would be face to face with what they had done. In a sense, this final step was “imposed” on them by Yosef. Without question, they would feel a sense of shame at this revelation. It was this sensitive moment that was of concern to Yosef. He was afraid that the delicate nature of this process, if accomplished in a more public manner, would lead to a different quality of embarrassment. The brothers would be more than humiliated, and would see it as part of a vindictive plan on Yosef’s part. It is one thing to suffer the embarrassment of sin recognition. It is another to do so in a way that offers up an entirely different dimension of humiliation. This would be an impediment to their teshuva; as a result, he clears the room.

Onkelos, though, sees Yosef’s reaction in the more literal sense. However, we must then explain why it would be necessary for him to evacuate all the non-family members. Without question this reunion was going to have its emotional component, and Yosef would indeed display a deep and powerful emotional reaction. What concerned Yosef was the perception this would create among the Egyptians. In general, people have certain expectations about their leaders, one of them being the ability to control one’s emotions. It generates a sense of security, regardless of whether this feeling is justified or not. The fact is, people tend to think that the ability to retain a “cool head” means a greater control over any particular situation. Yosef could not anticipate exactly how he would react, but he did know that this would be a moment replete with drama, and he therefore wanted to ensure that the image of steadfast leadership would not be distorted.

This leads us to the Ramban. One intriguing idea we see at the outset with the Ramban’s approach is Yosef’s intent on keeping the as much as possible under wraps. In fact, we see Yosef goes to great length to keep the true story hidden early on. When Yosef was thrown into prison, he tells his fellow prisoner, after interpreting his dream (ibid 40:15), that he was kidnapped and taken to Egypt. It would seem his intent all along was to make sure the truth would never get out. Obviously, the political fallout would be tremendous. One could walk away from this Ramban appreciating the tremendous foresight Yosef had. However, it is possible there is one other subtle idea here that reflects Yosef’s brilliance to a greater degree. Yosef realized how important it was to make sure no Egyptian found out what took place. As their sympathies become aligned with his brothers, he realized he had to behave in a certain way to ensure no suspicions might emerge; after all, to just throw Egyptians out of the room would certainly be a strange action. Thus, we see Yosef, according to the Ramban, calling out in anger. He was already acting in a very aggressive way, at least through the eyes of the Egyptians. When a leader lashes out in anger, it almost always grabs the attention of his subordinates, preventing any time to reflect on the current state of affairs. The point here is that this as part of Yosef’s overall effort to ensure the future Jewish nation would be able to reside in Egypt.

The overall impression one takes from this episode is that this was not a case of Yosef being unable to control his emotions. The various commentaries make it a point to demonstrate that Yosef was constantly thinking, attempting to work out the ideal way of revealing himself to his brothers, assisting them in their repentance, while also ensuring his leadership was intact and the sons of Yaakov welcomed. This reflects a general theme among the commentaries, an insistence on understanding that chachma, wisdom,  was and always is the modus operandi of any great chacham.