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On Creating a “Father”

When Yosef asked, “Do you have a father?” he was hinting to a deeper question


“And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ ” (Bereishis 45: 3). The question requires explanation. What, for instance, was the point of asking, “Is my father still alive?” Obviously, Yehudah had no more way of knowing the state of Yaakov’s health, after the brothers took leave of him, than did Yosef.

The Beis HaLevi understands Yosef’s question to have been a reproof: Now you beg for mercy for Binyamin based on your concern for the terrible pain that Yaakov, our father, would suffer if you were to return to him without Binyamin. But where was that concern for our father when you sold me into servitude, and allowed our father to think that I had been devoured by a wild beast?

The brothers could not answer Yosef, and retreated in fright before him. For they realized that their own past actions refuted their present claims. Nothing is more horrifying than such self-refutation, particularly as it presages what we will one day face in the World of Truth. There we will, kiveyachol, be shown a movie of our life. Every time we enter a plea in mitigation for some misdeed great or small, we will be forced to view another reel in which that same mitigating factor was present. Only this time the issue was not one of avoiding an aveirah or failing to perform a mitzvah, but rather the fulfillment of our desires. And in the latter case, the mitigating factor served as no impediment to us.

That insight of the Beis HaLevi has served generations of mashgichim well, as a prototype of the self-deception to which we are all prone and which will one day be fully exposed: Oy lanu l’yom hadin.

MY FRIEND and teacher Rabbi Dovid Affen, however, shared with me recently his own insight into the same confrontation between Yosef and his brothers — one that is also rich with implications for our own lives.

The sale of Yosef by his brothers and the subsequent repercussions form the bulk of three full parshiyos of Bereishis — Vayeishev, Mikeitz, and Vayigash. And the piyut of Eleh Ezcarah, recited in Mussaf of Yom Kippur, takes those repercussions even further, attributing the martyrdom of ten of the greatest of the Chachamim to the death penalty to which Yosef’s brothers were subject under Torah law for his kidnapping and subsequent sale. Clearly, the Yosef story is one we are meant to contemplate deeply.

The Gemara (Yoma 35b) lists various reasons people may offer for not learning Torah, and juxtaposed to each of those reasons, it gives examples of someone who had the same excuse but was not deterred from learning. Each member of the latter group is said to obligate all those who will one day offer that particular excuse. Yosef Hatzaddik is said to obligate the rasha — someone who is beset by a powerful yetzer hara and many temptations. And the Gemara offers Yosef’s resistance to the entreaties of the wife of Potiphar as the classic example of overcoming temptation.

Yet as Rashi informs us, Yosef only succeeded because at the very moment when the yetzer threatened to overcome him, he saw the visage of Yaakov Avinu through the window. That raises a question: If Yosef was saved by virtue of seeing his father’s face before him, how does that confer merit upon him or obligate anyone else? In what sense, is he a model for us? No one else has Yaakov Avinu for a father or benefits from supernatural appearances at a critical moment.

The answer, Rabbi Affen suggested, is that the visage of Yaakov was not something that just appeared to Yosef. Rather, Yosef had access to the image of his father because he had made the effort to preserve that image through all his travails. The image of Yaakov Avinu at the decisive moment resulted from Yosef’s constant efforts to keep the image of his father and the lessons of his father’s house before him. So much was Yaakov a part of his mental landscape that at the climatic moment, he could even imagine the sharp rebuke Yaakov would have given him to prevent him from giving in to the entreaties of Potiphar’s wife.

Prior to Yosef’s revealing himself, Yehudah points out how strange Yosef’s actions were with respect to the brothers from their very first meeting in Egypt. According to Yehudah, Yosef asked, “Have you a father or a brother?” On its face, the first part of the question makes little sense. Everyone has a father.

But when Yosef asked, “Do you have a father?” he was hinting to a deeper question: Do you have the image of a father that you carry with you always? An image that empowers you to overcome temptation?

And when Yosef reveals himself and asks, “Is my father still alive?” he is hinting to the failure of the brothers in comparison to himself. “I had a father — Avi — whose image accompanied me always,” he is telling them. He was alive for me, over a separation of 22 years. But was he ever really alive for you? If you had a father as alive for you as my father was for me, you would not have sold me.

The implications of Yosef’s message for us are enormous. First, each of us must choose for himself someone who models that which he aspires to be and whose image is always with him as a guide and a restraint. Someone who represents an objective standard for behavior from which we commit not to veer. And before that can happen, there first must be a close relationship, like that of a father to a son.

The need for finding such a demus (role model) is something that parents must always emphasize. As the Gemara says, “If the rav resembles an angel of the L-rd of Hosts, seek Torah from his mouth; if not, do not seek Torah from his mouth” (Chagigah 15b). It is easy enough for a young man in yeshivah to grow comfortable without an omnipresent image of a tzaddik, and to prefer the atmosphere of a boys’ club instead.

I was recently speaking to someone who was an outstanding bochur in one of Eretz Yisrael’s leading yeshivos. Now an avreich in his mid-thirties, he told me that for the first time he has found the talmid chacham whom he feels could be his rav. That young man, as it happens, had long been looking for someone who would serve as a guide for him, but that need is not self-understood for many yeshivah bochurim. And that is why parents in helping their sons choose a yeshivah must do what they can to make sure their sons find a rav who is both a model and a source of guidance.

Among the questions parents may want to ask are: Is there a demus (or several) in the beis medrash whom I would want my son to emulate? Does the yeshivah’s environment encourage the formation of close relationships between rabbanim and talmidim, and is the staff large enough to make such relationships likely? The very size of a yeshivah, which is often seen as a measure of its prestige, may actually work against finding a personal rav.

But one thing is for sure. There will be far fewer minefields if one travels through life accompanied by an image of a “father” before one’s eyes, especially when confronted with the toughest challenges. That is one of the crucial lessons of the Yosef story.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 889. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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