Learning from Joseph’s rebuke in Genesis

Defining the difference
between rebuke
and judgment
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Every year, at the end of the Book of Genesis, I’m always bothered by the same question. In the episode of Joseph and his brothers, when Judah is pleading to let their brother Benjamin free (as his capture would cause the death of their father), suddenly Joseph reveals himself to them by proclaiming, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” Why would he ask if his father is alive, if the whole point of Judah’s pleading is to save the life of his father?
Dru R.
Dear Dru,
Your question is posed by a renowned commentary, the “Bais Halevi.” He answers the question in true Jewish fashion: with another question! The Midrash quotes a verse saying, “Oy to us for the day of judgment, oy to us for the day of rebuke.” Explains the Midrash, “This is referring to Joseph and his brothers on the day he rebuked them, and they could not answer him, since they were dismayed by his rebuke.” This is referring to Ch. 45 verse 3, which you mentioned in your question. The problem is, that verse seems to say nothing about rebuking the brothers.
The Bais Halevi explains the difference between judgment and rebuke:
•Judgment looks at the action itself being judged at face value, if it was proper or forbidden, based upon the laws of Torah.
•Rebuke, however, looks at the action in a different light. Rebuke, in Hebrew, comes from the word hochiach, which means to prove to the other person inherently, from within the action itself, the wrongness of the act.
The first is fairly straightforward.
The second requires some explanation. For example, when one comes before the Heavenly court after leaving this world, he or she may be asked why they gave so little tzedakah. If the person will answer they couldn’t afford any more than they gave, they may be asked, “So then why did you have enough to buy a new car every year? Why was the yearly trip to the Caribbean within the budget? If you didn’t have enough money to do what’s important, why did you have enough for that?” In this situation, the act is being judged against itself: giving for one thing against giving for another, which is the ultimate rebuke.
This is what Joseph was expressing to his brothers during the plea of Judah to free Benjamin — rebuke. Judah’s argument was the unfairness of capturing Benjamin, as he is the most beloved son to Jacob their father, and his capture would surely bring their father’s untimely death. To that proclaims Joseph: “I am Joseph, the son who, at the time of my kidnapping and sale by you, was the most beloved to my father. Is my father still alive?” Meaning: Did my sale kill him? And if you’re concerned that Benjamin, my only maternal brother, being taken will kill our father, why weren’t you concerned about the exact same effect when you sold me away from my father? They couldn’t answer them due to their dismay from the penetrating power of that rebuke.
The lesson is to take a careful look at one’s own actions and see how many things we don’t do that we should be doing, based on lame excuses. We need to ask ourselves honestly: Will our answers hold up against the questions of rebuke at the time of truth? Will our answers be turned against us, showing us that all our excuses don’t hold water because what we claimed we couldn’t do, we actually did do, just at the wrong time and for the wrong purposes? We need to be ready for the day to come when we will hear: “I am God, did you care about me?!”

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