Collateral Impact

Part of daily life is interacting with people. We interact by phone, email, text, and in person. Hopefully, we choose our words carefully before we share them so that they are well-received. But, do we consider how our words impact other people associated with the person we are communicating with? What we say and do impacts a whole lot more than the person who is in front of our eyes. 

One of the most riveting moments in world history takes place in our parsha this week. Twenty-two years after Joseph is sold down to Egypt, and his brothers come to visit Egypt to acquire grain to survive the regional famine. After Joseph sees Benjamin, he cannot contain himself or his secret anymore and he exclaims this in Genesis 45:3.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָכְל֤וּ אֶחָיו֙ לַעֲנ֣וֹת אֹת֔וֹ י נִבְהֲל֖וּ מִפָּנָֽיו׃

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.

The commentators expound on Joseph’s inquiry about his father.

It’s understandable that when Joseph reveals himself, he shares his identity, but why ask about his father? As viceroy, Joseph already discussed his family in depth, including asking about “Jacob” (his father), so why does he ask this question again now?

Some advance this is because Joseph wanted to make certain that until now the brothers were just speaking in general terms. But, perhaps Jacob in actuality passed away. The Netziv-Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893), the grandfather of Rabbi Riff of Camden, explains that Joseph was pointing out a frightening flaw made by the brothers. Joseph was saying without saying it, just how much the brothers hurt their father when they kidnapped and sold Joseph. Besides the traumatic experience for Joseph himself, a boy of seventeen being sold to a faraway land as a slave, this act also profoundly impacts Jacob. Jacob fell into a twenty-two-year depression after he learned that his dear son Joseph was missing. Joseph rebukes his brothers for the pain and suffering they caused their father. 

This is a critical lesson for all of us. Often, we need to tell a person something sensitive or upsetting. Besides considering how this will affect the person you are dealing with, like Joseph we must also consider the collateral impact on others as well.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Scholar in Residence