Truly Taking Responsibility

EnglishThe first encounter of Parshat Vayigash, between Yehuda, as he takes responsibility for Benyamin, and Yossef in his role of Viceroy of Egypt, is also the story of great moral leadership. Yossef and Yehuda, each in their own ways, display and examplify the great, dearly needed moral qualities of honesty, integrity, repentance, forgiveness and accepting the consequences of one’s actions. In short, they recognize and accept their responsibilities.

As Yossef encounters his brothers after being estranged for twenty two years, it is understandable that he is in no mood to reveal himself. When his first son was born, he named him Menashe, because נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי – G”d has liberated me from all my affliction and my whole ancestral home (Bereishit 41:51). Indeed, as he recognizes them, and while they do not recognize him, the Torah teaches that וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם – and he acted as estranged from them (ibid. 42:7). The bitterness of their enmity towards him, culminating in their sale of him as a captive slave, wells up in him, and rightly so. Understandably, he might be tempted to take revenge, and this is indeed one way to understand the events that unfold over the course of the parshiyot Miqetz and Vayigash.

However, he also immediately recalls his famous, perhaps long forgotten (see Netziv) dreams. Instantly, he realizes that there may have been an invisible hand of G”d that made the results inevitable, and hence Yossef sets out to test whether the dreams will become realized (Netziv, Rav Hirsch).

Ultimately, Yossef not only scares his brother to the core, in making them believe that they will lose Binyamin, but puts them to the test, particularly Yehuda, who had said לֹ֥א נַכֶּ֖נּוּ נָֽפֶשׁ – let us not slay a life (Bereishit 37:21) -, and had promptly suggested that Yossef be sold into slavery, anyway. Will Yehuda distance himself from a troublesome situation involving the last brother linking him to his mother’s rival co-wife, or will he not look away this time around, but rather refuse to stand by idly as his brother and consequently his father – who, he claims, is still alive – will be subjected to great suffering?

Yehuda famously repents, and Yossef famously senses his brothers’ true repentance – though the Netziv stresses that Yossef may have felt that not all of them repented quite so sincerely, some might just have felt sorry for the whole affair and may have wished they had sold Yossef to another caravan, one that wasn’t headed for the Egypt where Yossef ended up becoming mightily powerful.

Suddenly, the viceroy reveals himself in private and tries to bridge the emotional and affective gap that had existed for decades between him and his older brothers.

Yossef lived a life of utmost integrity, as can be seen from his refusal – at his own peril – to violate the trust of his master Potifar, when approached by the latter’s passionately adulterous wife. Even once he was in a position of power second to none but the Pharao himself, he steadfastedly refused to abuse his power. Ramban explains the need for the Pharao’s command (Bereishit 45:17-20) to Yossef, to have his brothers’ pack animals loaded with food, which they would bring home, and for a caravan with wagons to accompany them, to ultimately bring them and their families to Egypt. According to Ramban the Pharao needed to command Yossef to do this, for he knew very well that Yossef would not use public assets for his own family – such was Yossef’s integrity, and the Pharao knew it.

However, this is not just a story of repentance and forgiveness and of Yossef’s integrity. While Yehuda accepted responsibility for Binyamin, and thus shows us how he has grown in the mean time, would he repair the twenty two years of suffering he brought upon the family?

On Friday, the 2nd of January ’09, the New York Times reported that Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, an investor who lost at leat USD1.4 billion of his own and mostly his clients’ money, in committing suicide, had accepted responsibility and blame for his role in Bernard Madoff’s greatest financial swindle of all times (see my commentary on the Madoff affair here). In the words of Bertrand de la Villehuchet, the brother of the financier: “He felt responsible and he felt guilty. Today, in the financial world, there is no responsibility; no one wants to shoulder the blame.”

True, de la Villehuchet felt shame and guilt, but does his suicide bring more than schadenfreude to any of his victims? Did he truly take responsibility? Or did he, in taking leave from this world, seek the ultimate freedom from his responsibility? Now, in death, he no longer has to face his victims-clients, he can no longer repair even one little bit what he did.

Did Yehuda limit his responsibility to a simple admission of guilt? Did he flee from facing the consequences of his actions, or did he, perhaps, come out with a greater resolve to live a different life?

After Qayin sinned, after his initial refusal to take responsibility for killing his brother Hevel, after G”d confronts him with the words קֹ֚ול דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה – the voice of the blood of your brother calls out from the earth (Bereishit 4:10) -, Qayin ultimately changes. He fathers a child and calls him ‘Hanokh, and he builds an eponymous city (ibid. 17). As Rav Matisyahu Solomon explained, quoting, I believe, Rabbiner Samson Raphael Hirsch, Qayin finally took responsibility and dedicated himself to the one and only way he could somewhat repair his actions: he dedicated his life to education, to his own reeducation, and presumably to the education of others. It is as if he named his son and his city “I have learned, and I am but dust and ashes – ‘afar va-efer -, I must learn again and again.”

Likewise, Yehuda understands that he must now accept the consequences. He no longer belongs to himself, but must exist to save and care for others. We obviously see the link with the Midrash, which Rashi quotes on the verse וְאֶת־יְהוּדָ֞ה שָׁלַ֤ח לְפָנָיו֙ אֶל־יֹוסֵ֔ף לְהֹורֹ֥ת לְפָנָ֖יו גֹּ֑שְׁנָה וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה גֹּֽשֶׁן – And he sent Yehuda ahead of him, to Yossef, to lead before him to Goshen (46:28). The word for “to lead” is lehorot, which also has the connotation of teaching, hence, the Midrash explains that Yehuda was sent to set up an educational framework ahead of their arrival, stressing thus both the importance of educational institutions and of Yehuda’s newfound sense of responsibility, which expresses itself particularly in a commitment to education.

However, even without the added meaning of this Midrash, the simple meaning of the verse is, as Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno and others point out, and as Rashi himself acknowledges, to prepare their arrival, in other words, to care for others’ well being.

Unlike de la Villehuchet, Yehuda did not shirk from his responsibilities. After recognizing he had acted wrongly and had brought suffering onto others, he accepted that his life was no longer his alone, and was even willing to become a slave forever, to gain freedom for Binyamin. After that heroic moment, he emerged a changed man and showed us that his sense of responsibility parallels that of Yossef, who was not only after the well being of his family, but after the well being of all Egyptians. Yes, even Yossef seems to have been impacted by his own suffering, moved to prevent the suffering of others.

Indeed, the Netziv points out that, while the Egyptians offered to become the Pharao’s slaves, if only he would feed them and they would live, nonetheless, while Yossef did buy their livestock and lands, and fed them, he did not turn them into slaves. At most, he compelled them work during a couple of years for the Pharao, but they regained their freedom quickly. In refusing to turn the nation into a nation of slaves, Yossef’s motivation was twofold. On the one hand, he didn’t want to saddle Pharao with the immense responsibility that came with slave ownership of an entire nation, and on the other hand, Yossef had known the suffering that the slave endures and rather wanted freedom for all.

Rav Eliyahu Mizra’hi, commenting on Yossef’s statement that everything that had unfolded in this saga was all to save Ya’aqov and his descendents from perishing in the famine, explains that this is what Yossef told his brothers, however, in reality, Yossef’s Providentially decreed responsibilities included caring for the Egyptians and saving them from the famine, too. As a person of integrity, Yossef could not have meant anything else.

Yossef’s integrity stands out as the model we should aim for.

In Eastern Europe, it was not uncommon for non Jews to appear with their disputes before a beit din, rather than before a civil court. This was true both, when they had a dispute with a Jew, as well as when non Jews had a dispute among themselves, for they knew that in beit din, they would be treated impartially.

The story is told of two Lithuanian gentiles who sued a Jewish widow; they appeared before Rav Yossef Ruzin, the Rogatshover Gaon. As the parties were making their arguments, the Rogatshover started to feel that the widow had defrauded the two Lithuanians, whereupon he turned to her and said, in Yiddish: “you probably believe you are right because you think that gezel akum is permissible, do you?” The widow, heartened by the fact the gaon addressed her in Yiddish, probably felt he was favorably inclined towards her and recognized the facts, whereupon he answered: “but the halakha is that gezel akum is assur,” and turned to the other party and told them in Russian that she had to pay.

Rav Yossef Ruzin, in his great honesty and integrity, merely followed in the footsteps of his illustrious namesake, Yossef haTzadiq, about whom the Netziv stressed (47:14) that the Torah testified about his incredible integrity, how he enriched his master, the ruler of Egypt, without taking a single unjustified penny to himself, and that on account of this, he was blessed with great success, for the honest man enjoys manifold blessings.

May we indeed seek our success through honesty and integrity; may we, too, merit to be remembered in the ways of Yossef, may we indeed take responsibility for our role in shaping an honest and integer world, regardless of how ruthless and unethical our competitors may or may not be.

Note: The portrayal of the interchange between Yossef and his brothers is partly based on a shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, accessible here.

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