Thinking Positive Makes Good Things Happen
Rabbi Uriel Ganzel
Yosef’s brothers lie and invent a secret last will and testament, ostensibly left by their father, Ya’acov. The Torah provides very harsh and direct instruction regarding the prohibition against being untruthful.
This is one of the only prohibitions throughout the Torah for which the Torah itself created restrictions and boundaries: “Distance yourself from a false matter” – we are commanded to completely distance ourselves from anything resembling a falsehood. Yet the Rabbis nevertheless chose to defend Yosef’s brothers: “Rabbi Ile'a further stated in the name of Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace; for it is said in Scripture, Thy father did command etc. so shall you say unto Yosef: Forgive, I pray of you, etc.”
What prompted the brothers to lie to Yosef?
The Rabbis suggested two alternative explanations for their falsehood:
According to the first explanation, during Ya’acov’s lifetime the family would come together for a common meal. This practice ceased upon Ya’acov’s death. Yosef himself believed that it was no longer appropriate to dine together with his brothers, for he reasoned that “formerly, my father placed me above Yehuda, who is a king, and above Reuven, who is the firstborn, but now it is not right for me to sit above them. They, however, did not speak thus, but ‘it may be that Yosef will hate us’.” It was Yosef’s social sensitivity, then, and his fear of embarrassing his brothers, that made them feel as if he was distancing himself from them, and perhaps even behaving toward them with arrogance.
According to the Rabbis’ second explanation, Yosef, while making his way back to Egypt from Canaan and his father’s burial, stopped by the pit in which he was thrown by his brothers when he was a boy. “The brothers saw Yosef, as he returned from burying his father, go look in the pit, but his intentions were for the sake of heaven. He said: “How many miracles has the Almighty done for me by saving me from this pit!” And they did not know what was in his heart, and said: ‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us’.” Yosef went back to the pit to thank Hashem for all the kindness he had bestowed upon him, as his return as a free and noble man represented relative closure. However, from the brothers’ perspective the pit was reminiscent of their own violence and the terrible act they committed years before. The brothers interpreted Yosef’s visit to the pit as proof that the events that took place around the pit had now taken on an underlying significance that was perhaps previously absent. Therefore, the brothers suspected that now that Ya’acov had died Yosef would act on his feelings of hatred and vengeance. The brothers undoubtedly remembered that Yosef was capable of acting ruthlessly, as he had shown them this quality during their initial set of interactions upon their arrival in Egypt years before.
The Rabbis’ interpretation of events recorded in the Midrash is representative of two different aspects of our religious lifestyle: performing acts that are bein adam lamakom, between man and the Almighty, and bein adam lachaveiro, between man and his neighbor. From Yosef’s perspective, he acted appropriately. By not calling for a family get-together, he prevented the awkwardness that may have potentially arisen if he had convened his brothers for a meal. His visit to the pit was for the purpose of giving thanks to Hashem for his salvation, and nothing more. What he failed to take into consideration was how his brothers would interpret his actions.
I would like to suggest a new commentary to the term “social justice.” In order for an act to be proper, it must pass two tests. It must be just, i.e. true, and it must also be social, i.e. one whose motivation can be understood by people in the immediate vicinity. Just as we must make sure to choose to do the right thing, we must also make sure that people who are in our immediate vicinity and are likely to be affected by our action understand and interpret our action properly.
The Rabbis here teach us a very important lesson. Yosef did not live in a vacuum. Every choice, be it with the purest of intentions, had some effect on those who surrounded him, either positive or negative. He could not control how people interpreted his actions, as he could only control what he himself did. However, in a family that had endured such a serious trauma, with brothers who had very good reason to feel guilty and inferior, it was not at all unlikely that each family member would have a different take on things and afford events a distinct, and often conflicting, interpretation.
The Rabbis, based on the parasha, suggest a very important lesson for maintaining a healthy social life:
A person must look beyond his own self and see how others, such as his spouse or partner, siblings, children and friends feel about his actions. What they think about a given situation or act, how they interpret it and what feelings those thoughts produce. There is no substitute for this process and only through its implementation can people transcend the basic differences between them and come together. Taking the approach that thinking positive produces good results is not always effective. Yosef had good intentions and his brothers interpreted them completely differently. There is no substitute for direct, honest and attentive communication, even when everything is done with the best of intentions. One must not always agree, but it is almost always possible to come to a basic level of understanding.
Yosef’s reaction to hearing his “father’s will” is indicative of his great surprise: “and Yosef wept as they spoke to him.” Yosef, apparently naively, thought that what had happened in the distant past had been forgotten and that actions and situations were understood in light of the camaraderie and brotherly affection that had been shared more recently. If Yosef had been aware of what feelings remained under the surface, he would surely have called his brothers in for a discussion and shared his feelings, experiences and reservations with them.
“Rabbi Simeon stated: we find in the Torah, the Prophets and the Scriptures that a man must be true to mankind just as he is true to the Almighty.”
Today, as we are at the doorstep of an election process in Israel, our civil leaders should take heed of the following words from Mishlei (Proverbs): “and find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man,” both God and man!
Rabbi Uriel Ganzel is the rabbi of the settlement of Revava and the director of Tzohar le-Chakika, a consulting initiative led by Tzohar rabbis, directed at members of the Knesset from all parties, with the goal of promoting Jewish values in legislation and decision making in a variety of fields, including justice, social issues, family and lifestyle, education and ethics.