Vayigash 5782: Ain’t That The Truth?
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )
GOOD MORNING! There is a well-known tradition in Judaism that there are four levels of existence in the physical world: 1) inanimate objects (e.g. rocks) 2) living objects (e.g. plant life) 3) things that live and breathe and move about (e.g. wildlife) 4) animate objects that have the power of speech – mankind..
This defining characteristic of man – the power to convey thoughts and ideas through speech – is something that is often not properly appreciated. The power of speech is so much more than mere communication; our words can be used to help or to harm, to heal or to injure, to validate or to humiliate, to create animosity or to create peace.
It has been said that while the tongue has no bones or powerful muscle structure it is, by far and away, the most potent part of the body. The very first evil act in creation came from a misuse of speech – when the snake spoke to Eve and convinced her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge by denigrating the Almighty. It is for this reason that Judaism has placed such serious prohibition against loshon hora – “evil speech.”
Some thirty-five years ago I remember reading a Dear Abby column in which she outlined the terrible fallout stemming from gossip, and she pointed out that even the word gossip sounds like a hiss. This should come as no surprise considering that the original source that introduced it into creation was the snake in the Garden of Eden.
According to the Talmud (Arachin 15b) gossip is considered a more severe transgression than the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism: 1) murder 2) idol worship 3) illicit sexual relations.
Loshon hora is absolutely insidious, and yet the almost uncontrollable desire to repeat it is universal. In fact, the Talmud laments that nearly everyone one is guilty of some form of gossip (Bava Basra 165a).
Unfortunately, it is so prevalent that people often take a cavalier attitude toward it. I once had a friend tell me, “I never repeat gossip – so listen carefully the first time!”
We are so preoccupied with idle gossip that we often try to find some way to justify our participation in it. This reminds me of the boss who told his secretaries to stop gossiping and get back to work. To which one replied, “We’re not gossiping we’re networking.”
An interesting element of the sin loshon hora is that in order to transgress it the gossip being retold must be true. If the story being retold is an outright lie, then it falls into a different category – motzi shem ra – “slander.”
Our sages were much more preoccupied with vilifying the sin of loshon hora – to the point that it is characterized as being worse than any other sin. One might wonder why the sin of motzi shem ra (slander) seems to be less severe than that of gossip, after all, to create a total fabrication just to defame someone seems to be worse than retelling a story that is actually rooted in truth! How can this be?
Interestingly enough, in this week’s Torah portion we find elements of both loshon hora and motzi shem ra and by analyzing the story we find the answer to this question.
Joseph could not endure the presence of all those that stood before him and he commanded; “Remove everyone from before me!” Therefore there was no one with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers (45:1).
In this week’s Torah portion, we find the climactic confrontation between Joseph and his brother Judah. This dramatic scene is the conclusion of a story line that spans three Torah portions and describes the somewhat uneasy reunion of Joseph and his brothers, and later, an emotional reunion with his father who thought him dead for twenty-two years.
Rashi (ad loc) explains that Joseph could not bear the thought of all the people who were normally in a king’s presence being present when he revealed himself to his brothers because they would be mortally embarrassed by their shame (for having sold him into slavery). He therefore ordered them all out of the room prior to revealing himself to his brothers.
The famous 16th century sage known by his acronym – Maharal, in his commentary on Rashi in the Gur Aryeh (ad loc), is bothered by Rashi’s assessment that Joseph was concerned about their potential embarrassment once he revealed himself to them.
Maharal points out that the Torah never even introduced the concept of Joseph revealing himself. If Rashi is right, asks Maharal, the Torah should first discuss that Joseph intended to reveal himself and he was therefore concerned for their shame and embarrassment in front of the Egyptians.
Remarkably, Maharal seems to conclude that Rashi is wrong and he suggests an alternative reason for their embarrassment, and why Joseph asked all the Egyptians to leave. He notes that in last week’s Torah reading we find that Benjamin was accused of stealing Joseph’s “magic” goblet. Maharal therefore concludes that their embarrassment was rooted in the accusation that they were common thieves. It is for this reason, he explains, that they were embarrassed and that Joseph ordered all the Egyptians out of the room.
Still, if possible, it is important to try to understand Rashi’s perspective and why he didn’t agree with Maharal’s conclusion.
As we mentioned above, one would naturally assume that it is more wicked to spread stories that are patently false than to simply relay stories that are essentially true. In fact, this is exactly what the famous 20th century sage known as the Chofetz Chaim says: motzi shem ra is worse than loshon hora (Chofetz Chaim, Hilchos Loshon Hora 1:1).
Still, it is a little puzzling that in Jewish teachings and traditions much more attention is given to the evils of loshon hora. How are we to understand this dichotomy?
Perhaps the answer lies in looking at these sins from two different perspectives; that of the perpetrator and that of the victim.
To completely concoct a terrible story about someone (motzi shem ra) requires real malevolence; one has to have a real character flaw to fabricate stories about someone simply in order to hurt them and cause them pain. This, from the perspective of the perpetrator, is a critical failing of one’s humanity and is positively evil; this requires a complete overhaul and rehabilitation of one’s character.
On the other hand, when it comes to the emotional harm to the victim, loshon hora is a far greater sabotage. In other words, if one is accused of something false, one may feel outraged and wronged, but he can still hold his head up high because he knows the story isn’t true.
But if one’s innermost vulnerabilities and failings are exposed to all, then there is simply nowhere to hide; everyone knows exactly what you have done and there is no viable defense. This is the ultimate devastation and is why loshon hora is far more sinister and damaging.
Perhaps that is why Rashi didn’t agree with Maharal’s assessment of what happened with Joseph and his brothers. Being accused of stealing the goblet, while terribly unpleasant and outrageous, wouldn’t lead to embarrassment. After all, they knew they didn’t steal it and that it was a false accusation.
However, being faced with their treachery of selling Joseph into slavery, which would clearly become public information when Joseph revealed himself, would lead to an incredible humiliation for their past misdeeds and this shame would be particularly magnified if anyone else were present. That’s why Joseph ordered everyone out before he revealed himself to his brothers.
This also gives some insight into Joseph’s remarkable character: he absolutely ignores the fact that he was so incredibly wronged by his brothers and could have “called them on the carpet” so to speak, but Joseph wasn’t interested in teaching them a lesson – all he wanted was reconciliation.
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
We left off last week with Joseph’s pronouncement that he was keeping Benjamin as a slave for stealing his wine cup. Judah steps forward to challenge the decision and offers himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph is overcome with emotion, clears the room of all Egyptians and then reveals his identity to his unsuspecting brothers.
The brothers are shocked! They suspect Joseph’s intentions, but accept his offer to bring the extended family to Egypt. Jacob is initially numb and disbelieving of the news, but becomes very excited to see his son.
The Torah recounts the 70 members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt. Jacob reunites with Joseph, meets Pharaoh and settles with the family in the Goshen district. During the famine, Joseph buys up all of the property and people in Egypt for Pharaoh with the grain stored during the seven good years.
“The mouth of a fool brings destruction to himself...”
— Proverbs 18:7