In today’s parsha, we read how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. “And Joseph could not restrain himself before all his attendants, and he cried out: `Let every man go out from before me’. And no man stood with him, when Joseph made himself known to his brothers” (Gen. 45:1).
In this connection, the Midrash reports an interesting controversy between two Rabbis.
One Rabbi declared that Joseph had behaved improperly in sending out all his retinue and bodyguards, and leaving himself vulnerable to his brothers, who might decide to finish off what they had started out to do some twenty years earlier, and kill him. The other declared that Joseph had behaved properly, since he had not wanted to embarrass his brothers, and this was a good enough reason to put his life in danger. The interesting thing is that both sides agree that Joseph was indeed endangering himself by leaving himself alone with his brothers.
This may seem surprising, considering that we know that Joseph had overheard his brothers discussing their situation, and deciding that they were being punished for their earlier bad treatment of Joseph, and repenting of that deed.
Why then should he (or the Midrash) feel that he was putting himself in any danger with his brothers?
In order to answer this, I would like to give one of my favorite quotations from the Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a):
“Righteous people say little and do much; wicked people say much and do not even do little.”
What does this mean?
In the case of wicked people, it does not mean that they intend to deceive or mislead. Wicked people usually know what is required of them, and make their promises or commitments sincerely, but they just cannot get around to fulfilling them. There is no integration between their intentions and their actions.
Often I must serve as a fundraiser for worthy charities. In that role there is one rule I find I can rely on when visiting people: the more someone talks, the smaller his check will be, and vice versa. Judaism is sometimes criticized by outsiders for being “practical”, and emphasizing action rather than just lofty thoughts or devout prayers. My answer is: That is true, but that is the greatness of Judaism! I certainly don’t want to diminish the importance of prayer, or spiritual thoughts, but the fact is that these are not enough! They must be followed by deeds. How does this relate to repentance?
The Rambam, in his exposition of the laws of teshuva (repentance), says that the only way we can be sure that we have done complete repentance for some sin, is if we find ourselves in the identical situation as before, and do not succumb to the same temptation. (The Rambam also adds that we should not, however, intentionally place ourselves in the same situation as before!)
This, I think, is the explanation behind the Midrash.
Although Joseph had overheard his brothers discussing their repentance, he could not be sure that it was complete unless they were to find themselves in the same situation as before (a position of physical mastery over Joseph), and not give in to their temptation to kill him. So, in putting himself alone with them, he realized he was putting himself in danger (and hence the Midrash’s discussion on whether this was justified or not).
As it turned out, the brothers passed the test, showing that their repentance was complete. What can we learn from all this (apart from the fact that this might be a good explanation of the Midrash)? We are a practical people.
We give great honor to the man of many deeds, to him who fulfills his commitments instead of just making them. In Judaism “not the thought is most important but the deed”.