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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: Better dead than white


Joseph cleared the room to avoid embarrassing his brothers. With no one to protect him from his brothers, Joseph put his life in danger. Joseph decided that it was better for him to die than to shame his brothers. Joseph arranged for Benjamin’s presence to fulfill the dream. Joseph was ready to sacrifice everything to avoid embarrassing his brothers. A person should let himself be thrown into a burning furnace rather than to embarrass someone in public. The pain of shame is worse than death itself. Someone who shames another in public has no share in the world to come. Mar Ukva and his wife jumped into a burning oven to protect a pauper from being embarrassed. No good can come from any embarrassment.

Joseph takes precautions

In last week’s portion, Joseph pretends to be a stranger and puts his brothers through a number to tests to gauge their attitude towards the youngest brother, Benjamin. In this week’s portion, Joseph decides the time is right to reveal himself to his brothers, but first he took some precautions. As it says (Be 45:1), “Joseph could not restrain himself in the presence of all those who stood in front of him, so he called out, ‘Remove everyone before me!’” Rashi explains that Joseph cleared the room because he could not bear to let his brothers be embarrassed with all the Egyptians standing there.

Joseph’s life in danger

The Midrash Tanchuma shares with us an insight how Joseph at this moment put his life in serious danger. He could not know whether the attitude of the brothers had changed towards him. Previously, his brothers had plotted to kill him. Now with everyone except his brothers leaving the room, there would be nobody there to protect him. Why would Joseph put his life in danger?

Better to die than to shame others

Explains the Midrash, Joseph felt that he would rather risk being killed than shaming his brothers in front of the Egyptians. If Joseph revealed himself in front of the Egyptians then all would know the story of how his brothers plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery. This would cause great shame to his brothers. Joseph decided that it was better for him to die than to shame his brothers.

Dream fulfillment

We have to realize the enormous excitement that Joseph must have felt at this moment. He saw in front of his eyes the fulfillment of the dream he had dreamt many years earlier. As it says (Be 42:9), “Joseph recalled the dreams that he had dreamed about them.” The Ramban explains that was why Joseph arranged that Benjamin should be brought down to Egypt. The dream showed all eleven brothers bowing down to him. Benjamin’s presence was necessary to fulfill the prophetic vision of his dream.

Sacrifice everything

The fulfillment of his dreams had started to come true. And soon Joseph would be able to reunite with his beloved father again. Furthermore, he understood that this was a most important moment, not only for himself, but also for the entire Jewish nation. Nevertheless, he was ready to sacrifice everything to avoid embarrassing his brothers.

Burning furnace

The Talmud teaches (Baba Metziah 59A) that a person should rather let himself be thrown into a burning furnace than to embarrass someone else in public. The Torah tells the story of Tamar who was prepared to be burned at the stake rather than expose Judah to embarrassment (Be 38:24-25). The Midrash explains that Tamar was divinely inspired to seduce Judah and that the child born from this strange union would set the stage for the royal lineage leading to Moshiach. Nevertheless she was ready to give everything up to spare Judah from embarrassment.

Turning white

Our sages compare shaming someone to killing a person. The Torah commands that a person should allow oneself to be killed rather than to kill another innocent victim. Similarly, our sages say that a person should sacrifice oneself rather than to put another person to shame in public. Rabeinu Yonah in his famous work, The Gates of Repentance (3:139) explains that someone who is put to shame will often go all white because the blood is drained from their face. This also happens when a person is killed. When a person’s hearts stops pumping blood, the person dies and the face turns white. In fact, the Talmud explains (ibid. 58B) that the pain of shame is even worse than death itself.

No share in the world to come

With this we can understand the statement of the Talmud that someone who shames another in public has no share in the world to come. This harsh punishment is not even mentioned for someone who physically kills another person. Explains Rabeinu Yonah that the one who puts his fellow to shame does not realize the seriousness of this sin. Therefore, the transgressor will not be remorseful and will not repent. On the other hand, the one who kills physically is much more likely to later regret this most evil act. From this we learn that the one who shames another person and is later remorseful, repents, and ask forgiveness from the victim, his share in the world to come is restored.

Mar Ukva and the pauper

To what extent a person must go to avoid putting another to shame is seen from an amazing story in the Talmud (Ketuboth 67B). In the neighbourhood of one of the Rabbis of the Talmud, Mar Ukva, there was an extremely poor person. The Rabbi would daily leave four coins behind the pauper’s door. In this way, the pauper would never see his benefactor. One day the pauper decided to wait for his benefactor to arrive so that he could catch him in the act and see who he was. That particular day Mar Ukva was late for the study hall and when he delivered the coins he was walking together with his wife. When the pauper saw the coins being delivered, he ran out to see who was there. Mar Ukva and his wife sensed that they were being followed so they ran away and jumped into a hot stone oven. The feet of Mar Ukva started to burn on the stones, but his wife’s feet did not. His wife said, “Put your feet on mine.” Mar Ukva felt bad that this miracle only happened to his wife but not to him. She explained to him that she merited this miracle because the kind of lovingkindness of her charity was greater than his. “I am at home and I provide food for the needy to eat immediately. But you give them money with which they have to go and buy food.” Concludes the Talmud, what was the need for Mar Ukva and his wife to run and hide in a hot stone oven? Because a person should rather let oneself get thrown into a burning furnace than put another person to shame. Although the poor person was curious to know who his benefactors were, Mar Ukva protected the pauper from being embarrassed to see the great Rabbi providing him his daily needs.

No good if embarrass

The Torah attitude is that even when you do a good deed, one has to be extremely cautious not to put the recipient in an embarrassing situation. As the Talmud explains, even when you give reproof to a fellow human being, you should do it in a soft way. It says (Vayikra 19:17) “You shall reproof your fellow … and do not bear a sin because of him.” Explains the Talmud, (Erchin 16B) that even when one has to reprove someone, one has to be cautious not to speak harshly so as not to embarrass. Even when we do a mitzvah we should be careful not to embarrass or put someone to shame. The Torah teaches us to be sensitive and extremely cautious of other’s feelings. When it comes to embarrassment, we have to be extra careful. No good comes from an embarrassment in any situation even with the best intentions.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel