Societal Shock and Awe
Guest post by R. Baruch Pesach Mendelson
Rabbi Baruch Pesah Mendelson is the rabbi of Khilah Marine Park and a rebbe at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys. Please note that I lightly edited this essay and added the title and subtitle without R. Mendelson’s specific approval, due to time constraints.
I. Seeing and Recognizing
In last week’s Torah portion, Yosef accused his brothers of being spies since they entered Egypt through ten different gates (see Rashi, Gen. 42:12). They responded that they were searching the city for our lost brother. Apparently, they recognized that they had done something wrong to Yosef and now, having done teshuvah, wanted to find him and buy him out of slavery. They were looking for him!
They arrived in front of Yosef but did not recognize him because he grew a beard (Rashi, Gen. 42:8). I don’t get it. When you are looking for someone whom you have not seen in over 20 years, you expect that he will look a bit different. The brothers know that Yosef is no longer a seventeen year old child anymore. Wouldn’t they have tried to picture him in their mind’s eye with a beard? Why could they not “see” him?
They were so many other hints, as well. Yosef favored Binyamin, asked repeatedly about their father, seated them according to age order, incarcerated Shimon rather than Reuven, the oldest and natural leader. Why didn’t they realize that Yosef was right in front of them?
ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אתו כי נבהלו מפניו
But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence. (Gen. 45:3)
אבא כהן ברדלא אמר אוי לנו מיום הדין אוי לנו מיום התוכחה… יוסף קטנן של שבטים היה ולא היו יכולים לעמוד בתוכחתו… לכשיבא הקב”ה ויוכיח כל אחד ואחד לפי מה שהוא… על אחת כמה וכמה
Abba Cohen Bardela said: Woe unto us for the day of judgment, woe unto us for the day of admonition… Yosef was the youngest of the brothers and they could not stand before him. When Hashem comes and rebukes each person according to what he is, even more so! (Bereishis Rabbah 93:10)
This “Ani Yosef, I am Yosef” moment is the paradigm of religious rebuke, and it left the brothers in shock. But why were they in shock? All the hints were there and they were looking for him! True, they did not expect to find him Viceroy of Egypt but at least they should have been happy to find him. After all, their plan had been to find him. Why were they frightened to find him?
II. Crashing Principles
Chazal say that the brothers were very bothered by the predicament in which they found themselves. They made a cheshbon ha-nefesh, spiritual self-reckoning. These righteous men had not sinned in over two decades. The only flaw they could find to which to attribute their troubles was “for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear” (Gen. 42:21), which Seforno explains means that while they felt they were justified in trying to kill Yosef, they should not have acted so hard-heatedly in doing so. For his sins, for his attempts to convince Ya’akov to disown the other brothers and his manufacturing dreams to justify his plans and intimidate his brothers, he deserved to die.
Even after seeing Ya’akov’s 22-year reaction, they still believed that their actions were proper. However, they should have felt Yosef’s pain more. The brothers probably thought hat they were right, Yosef deserved to be sold as a slave. But perhaps, like with Jonathan Pollard, twenty two years is enough. It was time to bring him home.
They could never have imagined that the Viceroy who had accused them and played them like puppets was Yosef. That possibility ran counter to their entire worldview, the justification by which they explained their prior actions and their silence to Ya’akov in his misery and mourning all these years. True, they were looking for Yosef. But not in the viceroy.
But now, they were confronted with the truth. They had just bowed down to Yosef! The dreams were real; Yosef was right and they were wrong. Their whole life was wrong. Their worldview, by which they had lived comfortably, had just fallen apart like a house of cards. The Beis Ha-Levi explains that Yosef’s statement “I am Yosef, is my father still alive” (Gen. 45:3) was an accusation of hypocrisy. The brothers were so worried about Ya’akov’s reaction to losing Binyamin but what about his reaction to losing Yosef? Yosef declared their entire worldview false. In one swift moment, the principles by which the brothers lived came crashing down.
What can you say at such a moment? “But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence.”
III. Fixing America
This country underwent a national tragedy last week in Connecticut. Children… teachers… murdered. And we’re speechless, we don’t know what to say. Why? Is it because of the magnitude of the horror, the death of innocents?
The President says we have to do something. Do something to whom? “We need to change,” he says. Who needs to change? Someone else! Change the gun laws, so “they” don’t have guns. Have institutions lock up people with serious mental illnesses so “they” won’t cause problems. These may be worthy proposals but they miss the point. They are about changing someone else.
We believe in doing teshuvah. We believe that we are the problem and we need to fix ourselves–collectively, as a society.
I have a sociological theory. I cannot prove it but I believe that when you have an aberration, one person in extreme circumstances far beyond the norm, it is a reflection of society’s problems. They only manifest themselves at the extremes but the core of the problem, its essence, is within all of us. We are all to blame. Blame for what?
IV. Violence in America
We live in a society that glorifies death, destruction, hurt, competition, even good guys shooting bad guys. This is a society where “action” rules. It’s in the movies, TV, YouTube, books and especially the news media. The news is all about murder and promiscuity. Violence is part of the fabric of our world.
And we accept this as normal. Shooting guns in violent video games is normal; shooting aliens in a movie is normal. In parts of the country, hunting animals is normal. That is our world: violent. “It’s a dog eat dog world” — even our language reflects this worldview. “My wife is going to kill me.” “That test was murder.”
Soldiers and police are glorified, not just necessary to maintain local and world order but because we all want to shoot people. People play paintball and laser tag, which they justify as harmless fun. And cartoons are bastions of violence. Studies were performed on children and found that watching a certain number of hours of cartoons correlated over thirty years with higher incarceration rates. This is all normal in our society!
A lunatic comes along and murders twenty children and we’re all in shock. Our whole world falls apart. We are all–to some degree all–wrong. We’re all in shock. Like Yosef’s brothers, our worldview has crumbled and we have nothing to say.
Except… that I have to change. I have to do something.
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