Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?” His
brothers were so startled that they could not respond. (Bereshith 45:3)
From the time the brothers returned to Egypt with Binyamin, all their
conversation with Yosef had focused upon their father Yaakov. There could
have been no doubt in Yosef’s mind that Yaakov was alive. Why then did
Yosef ask the question again? And why were the brothers unable to answer
him? On another level, the Midrash comments on this verse that if the sons
of Yaakov found it impossible to answer their younger brother, how much
more will we be dumbstruck when it comes to answering God on the final Day
of Judgment (1). How does the Midrash derive this? What is the connection
between these two events?
Yosef’s brothers had made a powerful appeal to him to release Binyamin
because of the pain that his captivity would cause their father. When
Yosef revealed himself with the words, “I am Yosef; is my father still
alive?” he conveyed to them that if they were really concerned about their
father’s welfare, they should have taken his pain into consideration when
they sold Yosef into slavery many years earlier. As soon as they heard
Yosef’s words, the brothers realized the extreme inconsistency of their
actions, and so were unable to respond to Yosef.
God effectuates His judgment in a similar manner. Thus when life ends, as
a person appears before God to be judged, if he attempts to defend his
paltry philanthropic activity by claiming that he lacked financial
resources to cover his basic expenditures, God will show him all the times
in his life he spent money frivolously. Confronted with his own actions,
he will find himself unable to respond (2).
Rav Meshulem Faivish from Zebriz, author of “The Way of Truth,” writes
that he once felt a strong desire to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin in a
way that surpassed anyone else’s fulfillment of that mitzvah. In addition
to wearing the tefillin accepted by most halachic opinions, he wanted to
don another set considered a hiddur mitzvah (an enhancement of the
mitzvah) according to some opinions. After extensive thought he decided to
abandon this idea. He reasoned, had his intentions been true, his desire
to wear the standard tefillin should have been equally strong. Since he
felt no exceptionally strong drive to perform the standard mitzvah of
tefillin, he concluded that reasons other than the truth were pushing him
to wear the additional set (3).
1. Bereshith Rabba 93:10.
2. From the commentary of the Beis HaLevi on Bereshith 45:3.
3. MiDevar Sheker Tirchak p. 101.