May 22, 2024
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Yosef haTzaddik–a Message for Us All

Put yourself, for a moment, in Yosef’s place. You have just revealed your true identity to your brothers. An identity that for the past 22 years was totally irrelevant. No one cared. Not about who Yosef was or where he came from. Dreams? The idle thoughts of a teenager long grown up.

But now it all mattered once more. I would not have begrudged Yosef had he indulged in a ‘superiority’ dance, ending with a giant “I TOLD YOU SO!”

But Yosef doesn’t do that. Once revealed, no emotion escapes from him while talking to his brothers. Not only that, he does not allow his brothers to dwell on their emotions either. He exhorts them to not second guess themselves on their way home. Rather, they are to rush and return as quickly as possible.

The brothers are left to wonder, “What does he really feel?”

Years later, after Yaakov’s death, Yosef has still not revealed his feelings. And the brothers are concerned that he has waited for his revenge until now. They seemingly lie again, telling Yosef that his father had commanded him, through the agency of his brothers, to not seek retribution for the way they treated him.

Yosef, remarkably, perhaps frustratingly to us, remains on message. Not even a second of schadenfreude. We do not get to glimpse behind the stoic mask Yosef has crafted–the “revealer of hidden things,” he himself remains a cipher.

In all of Tanach, only one person–Noach–is identified as a tzaddik. Chazal chose to bestow that moniker on a small number of additional people. Not Avraham. Not even Yitzchak, who alone among our patriarchs, retained a laser-like focus on his personal mission from God, except for one brief moment when we see his true nature, glimpsed secretly by an outsider. Not Yaakov. Yosef is one of the few.

What singles Yosef out for such recognition? Perhaps it is exactly this trait of Yosef which marks him as a tzaddik: his ability to hide his personal feelings so totally that we have no clue as to what they could possibly be. As a tzaddik, he justifies all events around him as part of a master plan. His feelings and emotions didn’t matter for the 22 years he was away from his family. They no longer matter, ever, now that his story is part of a larger Divine scheme.

We live in a time where we bestow titles freely. It seems that the Orthodox world cannot exist without someone being identified as the greatest of the generation (gadol hador). Every pious person is now a tzaddik. We have reached a level of hyperbole where I wonder whether the words mean anything anymore.

I worry because that’s not good. It seems to be an extension of a broader societal phenomenon: a belief in hard absolutes. A world incapable of compromise and moderation.

Yosef, the Tzaddik, locked away his personal feelings to prevent just such positions from swallowing his brothers whole. He interacted with them based on a broader vision, even if, perhaps especially if, it conflicted with his subjective feelings.

We can all afford to learn from his ways.

By Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz

Associate Head of School, Jewish Educational Center, Yeshiva Mesivta, Bruriah

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