Ani Yosef, ha'od avi chai? V’lo yochlu echav l’anos oso ki nivhalu mipanav.
I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? But his brothers could not answer him, so disturbed, dismayed, terrified, anxious were they before him. (Braishis 45:3)
The Midrash says, Yosef was the youngest of the brothers, yet they could not stand his rebuke, as it says, and his brothers could not answer him because they were so shaken in his presence.
What rebuke did Yosef say that his brothers were so shaken? In this pasuk, Yosef simply said, I am Yosef, is my father still alive?
There are two ways to understand Yosef’s question and either way could have caused the brothers to be shaken.
The question may have been meant rhetorically. Can it be that after all that you have put him through my father is still alive!
Or the question may have been meant literally. Even though Yehudah had just pleaded with Yosef to spare his father the grief of losing Binyamin, implying that their father was indeed still alive, Yosef wasn’t sure this was true. Yehudah, moments ago, had lied to Yosef, saying that Binyamin’s brother was dead (44:20). Yosef may have been in doubt that his father was still alive, and his question was literal.
Whether the question was rhetorical or literal, the shame it triggered in the brothers was overwhelming. (based on Torah Temimah on Braishis, 45:3)
It is clear, whether Yosef’s question was literal or rhetorical, that he did not give his brothers tochacha in the way we tend to think of it. He did not tell them what they had done wrong or chastise them in any way. It is not until the next pasuk that Yosef reminds them of what they had done to him, I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. (Braishis, 45:4) Yosef said [to himself], now my brothers feel ashamed. He spoke to them gently and compassionately. (Rashi ibid)
He mentioned what they had done. He did not ask any questions. He did not put his brothers on the defensive. He did not tell them how wrong, how insensitive they had been. He knew they would realize all of that on their own. He would allow them to feel ashamed, rather than shaming them. Yosef gave tochacha in a way that would help his brothers grow rather than tearing them down.
In Parashas Vayigash, Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers. They tremble before him, unable to bear their great embarrassment for how they wronged him. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 93:10) expounds, "Woe is to us on the day of judgment (in the World to Come)! Woe is to us on the day of tochacha (rebuke)! Bilam, the wise man of the nations, could not withstand the rebuke of his donkey. Yosef was younger than his brothers, yet they could not answer his rebuke. How will we be able to answer Hashem on the day of judgement?"
We may wonder, why is this called rebuke? Yosef simply told his brothers who he was and inquired after the health of his father. While the next passuk may contain rebuke, when Yosef declares, "I am Yosef, whom you sold to Egypt," the Midrash mentions only Yosef's revealing of his identity as a frightening reminder of the rebuke that awaits us in the next world. What is the tochacha in this statement?
Rav Asher Weiss answers that this question stems from a misunderstanding of the concept of tochacha, and the Midrash comes to teach us how to properly define it. Tochacha does not mean raving against a person's misdeeds, or forcing him to acknowledge his follies. Genuine tochacha is bringing a person to a place where he will recognize the truth on his own and want to change.
Regarding the brothers, Yosef's words caused them to realize that they had been mistaken. He was not the schemer they had believed him to be. The dreams he had shared with them were prophecies, not manifestations of his greed for power. Even though Yosef approached his brothers lovingly, they were still overcome with remorse for what they had done. All Yosef had to do was reveal who he was, and it had an incredible impact. Each brother recognized the dreadfulness of his actions and felt a burning to correct the past...
An important point made in this Midrash is that confronting the truth is much more painful if it is pointed out by others. The Midrash emphasizes that even a little brother or a donkey can cause a person pain and anguish for his actions.
One might tell himself, okay, tochacha hurts more when it comes from others. But facing up to my mistakes is pretty hard, too. If I call myself a failure, how does the fact that I'm saying it make it better?
There is a world of difference between getting tochacha from someone else and being in control of our own self-improvement. When someone else rebukes us, it attacks our very essence. Suddenly, somebody highlights a fault of ours, and now we appear to be bad, at least a little. It is painful for ugly aspects of ourselves to be on display. However, when we face our issues ourselves, there is no reason to be embarrassed. After all, no one is perfect. We were created for the purpose of perfecting ourselves! What could possibly be embarrassing about addressing the very purpose of our lives? Every problem we identify is a victory and one more step towards perfection. (Gedolei Yisrael on the Parashah, Rabbi Moshe Kruger, Adir Press, 2016, pages 93-95)
Help your children learn to anticipate the impact of their actions on those around them before they act. After they have acted, teach them to evaluate their actions and judge themselves. Draw them close and listen gently and you will help them take one step closer towards perfection.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.