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Yosef's Self-Control

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Vayigash, 45:1: “Now Yosef could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him, so he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me!” Thus no one remained with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers.”

The Portion begins with the culmination of the monumental confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda, which climaxes with Yosef’s dramatic revelation. The verse states that Yosef could no longer control himself in front of his brothers. Two questions on this verse arise. Firstly, why was Yosef trying to restrain himself? Secondly, what is the meaning of the last clause, ‘in the presence of all who stood before him’?

The Kli Yakar’s explanation of this episode helps answer the first question. He writes that in great detail that everything Yosef did to them before revealing himself was carefully planned to bring them to recognize the gravity of their sin in selling him and to rectify it.2 He did this by inflicting on them, measure for measure, the suffering that they caused him twenty-two years earlier. For example, he threw them into a prison to correspond to the fact that they threw him into a pit; and he kept Shimon as prisoner in Egypt because he was the main instigator of the plot to harm him; most significantly he placed them in a situation as similar as possible to the one they were in so many years earlier; where the other son of Rachel stood to be lost – would they now rectify their earlier hatred of Yosef by being willing to give up everything to save Binyamin? Indeed, it is apparent from the Torah’s account that his goal was being fulfilled as we see that they increasingly recognized that the tribulations they were undergoing now were teaching them of the severity of their sin in selling Yosef, until the point where Yehuda showed how dedicated they were to saving Binyamin.3

The Shem MiShmuel explains that after Yehuda’s passionate plea for mercy, the Torah tells us that Yosef could no longer continue his pretense because, as the Midrash describes, Yehuda was on the verge of trying to kill him. The implication is that ideally, he planned to continue even further.4 The reason for this is that he realized that he had not yet fully rectified the hatred and distrust sowed so many years earlier. We see that his emotions were so strong that he could no longer restrain himself even though he was aware of the importance of prolonging the ordeal with the brothers.

Given all this, Rabbi Yerucham Levovits makes a fascinating observation that can help answer the second question of the meaning of the clause, ‘in the presence of all who stood before him’. Rabbi Levovits understands these words to mean that he did not want to embarrass the brothers by revealing himself in front of all the Egyptians who were present, so before he did so, he sent them out. He notes that Yosef was evidently so emotional that he could no longer continue with his original plan, and yet at the same time, he had enough presence of mind to first send out all the people because of his great sensitivity to his brothers.5 This demonstrates Yosef’s incredibly high level of self-control enabled to avoid rashly revealing himself in front of everyone else when he knew that was not the correct course of action.

Another example of Yosef’s self-control at a time of great emotion is seen in the beginning of Mikeitz when he is suddenly taken out of prison in order to meet with Pharaoh. The Torah says, “Pharaoh sent and summoned Yosef, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and came to Pharaoh.”6 With regard to being rushed out of the dungeon the verse uses the plural, ‘they’ indicating that the Egyptians took him out, but then the Torah switches to the singular, ‘he’ when it tells us about his shaving and changing his clothes. One commentator suggests that this indicates that the Egyptians did not force him to shave and change his clothes, rather Yosef did this on his own volition. Rashi says that the reason he did this was for the honor of the Kingship – the implication seems to be that this refers to the Torah concept of honor of the Kingship as opposed to an Egyptian custom.

This does not seem particularly striking until we consider the context of the situation. Yosef has been languishing in a dungeon for twelve long years with no seeming hope of salvation and suddenly he is plucked out of the dungeon to meet Pharaoh. It would be totally understandable for a person in such a situation to be very unsettled and not clear of mind. Moreover, he would likely be extremely impatient for the chance of salvation and not want to delay it for a moment longer than necessary. Yet Yosef remained perfectly calm and kept his presence of mind to request that before he meets Pharaoh, he shaves and changes his clothes.

We have seen Yosef’s remarkable presence of mind and calmness at times where most people would feel agitated and disconcerted. In contrast, one of Yosef’s brothers, Reuven, is criticized by Yaakov Avinu for failing in this very area. Many years earlier, Reuven had sinned by moving Yaakov's bed.7 When Yaakov blessed his sons, he criticized Reuven for the rashness of his action. As a result of this character trait, Reuven lost his right to the first-born. It is evident from the harsh consequences of his momentary rashness, that the trait of rashness is considered highly damaging. Rashness causes a person to make impulsive decisions without giving sufficient attention to the consequences of one's actions. This seems to have been Yaakov's criticism of Reuven's action in moving his father's bed. He acted impulsively without considering the consequences of his actions, in contrast to Yosef.8

It is noteworthy that none other than Yosef replaced Reuven as the halachic ‘first-born’ in that he now received the double portion and two of his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, became heads of their own tribes. Perhaps, one of the factors that contributed to Yosef’s inheritance of the rights to the first-born, is the fact that Yosef excelled in the very trait where Reuven stumbled.

There are many applications to our lives of the traits of calmness and avoiding rash behavior. One is the ability to overcome our natural emotions to act in the correct manner through our immediate reactions to things that may happen to us. The great Sages excelled in this area. On one occasion, on a snowy winter day, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broide, Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, opened the door of the yeshiva to go outside, when he was suddenly struck by a flying snowball that was thrown by an over-exuberant yeshiva student, of course with no intent to hit his Rosh Yeshiva! Most people would immediately turn to see who was the culprit, but Rabbi Broide had such self-control that he did not turn his head and continued on his way without seeing the guilty party. His split-second reaction was to realize that the boy did not intentionally do anything wrong, therefore there was no need to embarrass him by looking at him.

Of course, this type of reaction can only come after many years of self-perfection but each person can strive to emulate it on his own level. One common example is when someone’s phone goes off in shul – of course one should be careful to turn off his phone before he enters the shul, but it does happen that people sometimes forget. Nevertheless, regardless of the guilt or otherwise of the owner of the phone, it seems that there is no great benefit for people to turn around to see who he is he will turn it off immediately regardless of who looks or not, and looking at him only causes embarrassment. Restraining from looking also requires, on its own level, the ability to react in a split-second in a controlled way. May we all merit to emulate Yosef in his remarkable powers of self-control and presence of mind.

  1. Bereishit, 45:1.
  2. Kli Yakar, 42:9.
  3. Bereishit, 42:21-22.
  4. Bereishit, 45:1 See Shem Mishmuel, Bereishis Shnas 5671, sv.venireh, p.270, who understands theverse this way.
  5. Daat Torah, Vayigash, Biurim, p.255.
  6. Bereishit, 41:14.
  7. See Vayishlach, 35:22 with commentaries for the account of this incident.
  8. Needless to say, Reuven was a tremendously righteous person, and as is often the case, the Torah magnifies his sin so that we can learn from it.

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