Date: December 21st 2017


Parshat Vayigash continues telling the story of Yosef (Joseph) and his brothers.

The great famine predicted in Pharaoh’s dreams persisted. Yaakov’s sons, therefore, made a second journey to Egypt to buy the food needed for their survival. Unbeknown to them, their brother Yosef whom they had sold into slavery years earlier was the viceroy of Egypt who oversaw these transactions.

Yosef finally revealed his true identity and promptly attempted to assuage his brothers’ embarrassment over what they had done to him. Yosef represented that Hashem’s (G-d’s) plan was for him to rise to his high position in order to save them from DEATH BY STARVATION during the famine (Parshat Vayigash 45:5). Yosef then urged his brothers to go home and return with their father Yaakov and the entire family. Once in Egypt, they could live safely and with honor while being sustained by Yosef.

Yosef then sent a somewhat different message to his father: that Hashem made him a ruler to prevent them from becoming destitute (if they remained in Israel and had to spend all of their money on food – ibid. 45:11).

The Commentary of the Ramban (ibid.) explains that Yosef’s shift in language was deliberate. The brutal truth was what he conveyed to his brothers - they might all die if they remained in Israel. However, openly confronting his father Yaakov (Jacob) with this reality entailed a certain lack of respect. Though true, it was tantamount to saying that the very life of the father was in the hands of the son. Yosef, therefore, deferentially understated the urgency and said that moving to Egypt was necessary to avoid poverty.

Yosef’s fulfillment of his obligation to be respectful was very calculated. He was normally respectful to all people – especially his esteemed elder brothers. Yet, to them, he spoke directly. He likely reasoned that the threat to their lives superseded his obligation to address them with delicacy. However, because Yaakov was Yosef’s father (and Rebbe), Yosef had an even greater obligation to be respectful and therefore only spoke of being impoverished.

In truth, there was ample reason to address Yaakov more bluntly. The very fact that Yosef had to present these arguments indicates that the entire family had to be convinced to move. Accordingly, Yosef’s more delicate words could have heightened the danger to Yaakov’s life by understating the mortal danger they were facing.

A fundamental principle of Torah is that the imperative to preserve human life takes precedence over all of the Torah’s prohibitions, save the three mortal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder. Accordingly, if rescuing a life entails disrespect, the duty to save that life overrides the obligation of respect. Why then did Yosef diminish his efforts to save Yaakov’s life in order to speak respectfully? Why was Yosef’s approach proper at all?

In truth, this was different from a typical danger to life scenario for at least two reasons: (1) The threat to life was not immediate, for it involved a future danger of starvation. Perhaps the morrow might bring Yaakov a different salvation. (2) Yosef did partially discuss the urgency at hand, and Yaakov could have surmised that it was his life and not just his money that was endangered. Therefore, although the interests of Yaakov’s safety would have likely been better served by blunter words, Yosef’s words to Yaakov were tempered by respect.

The ethical concept that is inferred from this text can impact upon virtually every human interaction. Yosef made certain to speak with extreme respect – notwithstanding that doing so somewhat endangered the lives of his beloved father and family – and the Jewish Nation of the future.

If so, when there is no danger to life, the Torah obliges people to always be most respectful all the more so!

Such factors as familiarity, intimacy, or being in a position of authority do not confer a license to act or speak disrespectfully or to even dispense with such words as “Please” and “Thank you.” Even in dress, a certain measure of respect is always called for in any relationship. The frayed sweatshirt one wears when having breakfast alone might be unsuitable for breakfast with one’s spouse. Derech eretz might require wearing a sweatshirt that is not frayed.

The following two vignettes help convey a general sense of the Torah’s imperative to act with derech eretz.
One of the most beloved and esteemed Torah scholars of recent decades was Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach of Jerusalem (1919 - 1995). He was married to his wife for over 60 years, and they reputedly had a truly beautiful relationship. The story was told of a man who was walking with R. Auerbach to his home. As they were about to enter, R. Auerbach suddenly stopped and began straightening his clothing and doing his best to remove the ever-present Jerusalem dust from his hat and everything else he was wearing. The man was puzzled, and he asked what this was about. R. Auerbach replied: “I am about to be seen by my wife. To honor her, I must first make myself as presentable as possible.”

The great authority on Torah law Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) once answered a questioner in a manner that reflects the Torah’s attitude to derech eretz. A young man had left his small town to study at a large yeshivah and returned home many months later for the holidays. While away, he was inspired to begin focusing intently when reciting the daily prayers. This led him, like many other idealistic and devout yeshiva students, to begin reciting the Amidah slowly. Doing this in his hometown synagogue would mean finishing the Amidah well after the synagogue’s rabbi. The locals, who had never attended a yeshivah, could misconstrue this as being somewhat disrespectful or disparaging to their rabbi.

R. Feinstein was asked about what the young man should do. Was he obligated to suddenly focus LESS on his prayers when visiting his parents? The answer given was that he should never in any way even APPEAR to be lessening the honor of the rabbi. Rather, he should observe derech eretz and force himself to “focus fast” and conclude the Amidah no later than the local rabbi.

This is an edited version of the Dvar that was previously emailed on December 5th 2013.

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