As our secular calendar year 2022 draws to a close, we cannot help but to turn our thoughts to both a year now ending as well as to the future on our horizon.
How could it be otherwise? The end of an annum is an invitation to review how we have comported ourselves — in speech and silence — over the last 12 months and to make proper adjustments to our behavior going forward, for in these ways do we reveal our true character.
In Vayigash, we read of Joseph receiving and then revealing himself to his brothers upon their coming down to Egypt to plead for food in the midst of a famine. The brothers do not recognize the one before whom they stand; Joseph, for his part, immediately recognizes his siblings, yet (owing to his own mixed feelings about the past) is slow to own up to his identity.
Joseph, who is in a position of supreme authority, responds to his brothers with ostensible generosity — but he also secretly plots against his own. Thus, before sending his siblings on their way with necessary provisions, Joseph secrets a silver goblet into his brother Benjamin’s sack, effectively creating the pretense to frame an innocent man for acts he did not commit.
Joseph, who originally chose not to be candid with his brothers, is soon overwrought with what he’s done; and when he can no longer abide his own duplicity, Joseph comes clean, disclosing his true identity with great emotion. This moment is ignificant because in it, Joseph redeems and thus reveals his true character.
But what of the other members of the court who participated in the original charade? Silently deferring to the vizier’s authority, not a single member of the royal retinue objects to the ways in which Benjamin and his family are treated. Perhaps some feared for their livelihood or even their lives; this we can understand. But what of those who could have spoken up but held their tongues? Each of us is, after all, responsible for our own choices.
And what of you and me? What of our own silence in the face of injustice? What of those times when, as leaders and role models, we have had an opportunity to do the right thing but chose, instead, to remain mute in the face of improper, even immoral, behavior perpetrated by confederates and friends?
The choice to remain silent, too, reveals character. After all, to say nothing when one has an opportunity to right a wrong is a tacit acceptance of the same; and to continue freely associating with those who engage in such unsavory activity also shows all who we are.
Facing our own errors in having rushed to judgment (for example) or holding ourselves to account for our silence long after the harm is done is never easy. But necessary, it is. After all, we do not surrender our agency just because we join a group; there is no true anonymity in numbers and we shall be judged by both the choices we make and the company we keep.
So it was that at the moment of Joseph’s big reveal to his brothers (perhaps the most emotionally charged moment in all the Torah), he sends everyone away. Why?
So Joseph may be alone with his conscience, fully present with his brothers, and revealed thereafter as a man of singular character.
Vayigash’s message: Confront yourself courageously. Course correct as necessary. Cultivate your character continuously. It’s never too late to do the right thing! PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.