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Distortions abound

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

Ahh! How wonderful it must be to luxuriate in a sense of one’s righteousness! A comfortable feeling that allows one to simply condemn others as immoral, brush aside the feelings of the unworthy, and look askance at those who choose to live with different standards. One must, of course, play along with lesser beings, especially those in power, but inside, oh, the great pleasure of peering through lenses of purity that offer a clear view of who really deserves respect.


It’s difficult to read Judah’s speech to the viceroy of Egypt, the still unrecognized Joseph, as explained by Rashi, and not bristle at his double entedres, hinting to just such a sense of righteousness. “For you are like Pharaoh (Genesis 44:18),” which can be understood as, “You are as important as the king,” but can also mean, “Neither of you keeps promises!” Judah’s righteous fury over the viceroy’s dishonesty rings hollow coming from the man who lied to his father for twenty-two years, insisting that Joseph was dead. “His soul is so bound up with his soul,” weeping righteous tears over the connection between Jacob and Benjamin, poignant feelings absent in his deadly hatred of Joseph.

We appreciate that the man who wanted to kill his brother is changed; he is willing to exchange his life for that of Benjamin. He can be comfortable again in his righteousness. Judah has become a better son. However, there is an outstanding issue: Years before, the brothers, “could not speak to him – Joseph – peaceably (37:4),” and Rashi insisted on pointing out their virtue: They were too honest to pretend love and friendship they did not truly feel. How nice! How virtuous! How righteous! Yet, here we have Judah admitting that his great praise of the viceroy, the same person he convinced Jacob, “is a meshuganeh (43:12),” was not heartfelt; “I’ll kill you and your master!” The people, who righteously refused to pretend friendship with Joseph, admit to exceptions to their rules. They will pretend to feel respect for Egyptian authorities.

There is an exquisite moment of self-realization. Perhaps their refusal to pretend to like Joseph was not a virtue. Perhaps their disdain of their young brother was not because of their righteousness. “I will be sinning to my father for all time (44:32),” can also be read, “I have sinned to my father all along.” It is Judah’s honesty that triggers Joseph’s decision to reveal his identity.

The Midrash also understands Judah’s words as a form of prayer; real prayer demands such honesty. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, which we will commemorate this coming week on the Tenth of Tevet, was intended to trigger a willingness to step out of the luxuriating bath of self-righteousness. It was meant as a call to people who were righteously observing the law to understand that, as far as God was concerned, they, “draw close, with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from Me. Their awe of Me is like rote learning of human commands (Isaiah 29:13).” The people of besieged Jerusalem refused. They, “hid in depths to conceal God’s counsel, and their deeds are done in darkness (15).” They were too comfortable in their righteous warmth to take an honest inward look.

The Chanukah candles offered illumination. Now, we must use that light to look at ourselves with the self-honesty of Judah, and pray, “I do not know You, God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside (Flannery O’Conner, A Prayer Journal).” I like to believe that had they been able to push themselves aside, the Babylonians would have left before destroying the Temple.

Shabbat Shalom


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Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg, is founder and President of the leading Torah website, The Foundation Stone. Rav Simcha is an internationally known teacher of Torah and has etablished yeshivot on several continents.