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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: Better dead than white
December 12, 2007
DEDICATION: This Torah Attitude is dedicated to the loving memory of Yosef ben Shmuel - Joseph Zettel obm by Hanoch & Celia Bernath and family and Tzvi & Sara Zettel and family.
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 risk being killed 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 causing embarrassment.
Joseph takes precautions
In last week’s portion, the Torah related how Joseph pretended to be a stranger and put his brothers through a number of tests. The Ramban explains that this was to gauge their attitude towards the youngest brother, Benjamin. In this week’s portion, Joseph decides the time has come to reveal himself to his brothers. However, he first he takes 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 if front of all the Egyptians standing there.
Joseph’s life in danger
The Midrash Tanchuma points out how Joseph at this moment put his life in serious danger. He could not know whether the brothers’ attitude towards him had changed. 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. Asks the Midrash, how could Joseph put his life in such danger?
Better to die than to shame others
The Midrash explains that Joseph decided that he would rather risk being killed than putting his brothers to shame in front of his Egyptian servants. If Joseph revealed himself in front of his servants, they would all know the story how his brothers had plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery. This would cause great shame to his brothers. Joseph could not bring himself to do that. He would rather die than bring shame upon his brothers.
One can well imagine the enormous excitement that Joseph must have felt at this moment. After all these years, he finally saw the fulfillment of the Divine message he had dreamt many years earlier. As it says (Be 42:9), “And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them.” The Ramban explains that this was why Joseph arranged that Benjamin should be brought down to Egypt. The dream had showed all eleven brothers bowing down to him. Joseph understood that G’d had showed him that dream so that he should ensure that Benjamin would be present in order to fulfill the prophetic vision of his dream.
Now that the fulfillment of his dreams had started to come true, Joseph anticipated and looked forward to reunite with his beloved father again. He well understood that this was a most important moment, not so much for himself, as for the entire Jewish nation. And despite all this he was ready to sacrifice everything to avoid embarrassing his brothers.
This kind of self-sacrifice is not limited to someone on Joseph’s high level. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 59a) teaches that every person is expected to rather let himself be thrown into a burning furnace than to embarrass someone else in public. The Talmud learns this from Tamar who was prepared to be burned at the stake rather than expose Judah to embarrassment (see Bereishis 38:24-25). The Talmud (Sotah 10b) explains that Tamar was Divinely inspired to seduce Judah and that the child born from this strange union would set the stage for the Davidic royal lineage leading to Moshiach. Tamar knew this, but nevertheless she was ready to give everything up to spare Judah from embarrassment.
This needs clarification. True it is not nice to embarrass someone. But it does not seem so terrible that one should rather let oneself risk being killed rather than to put another person to shame. However, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) compares shaming someone to killing the person. Just as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) teaches that one should allow oneself to be killed rather than to kill another person, one is obligated to sacrifice oneself rather than to put someone else to shame in public. Our sages view putting someone to shame as a subdivision of the prohibition against killing. For someone who is put to shame will often go all white as the blood is drained from their face. This is somewhat comparable to a person who is killed when his heart stops pumping blood and the face turns white. In fact, Rabbeinu Yonah in his famous work, Gates of Repentance (3:139), explains that the pain of shame is even worse than death itself.
No share in the world to come
The Talmud (ibid 59a) goes even further and says 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. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the Talmud does not mean to say that embarrassing is worse than killing. But the one who puts his fellow to shame does not realize the seriousness of his 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. However if the one who shamed another person is remorseful and repents and therefore asks forgiveness from the victim, he will also have a share in the world to come.
Mar Ukva and the pauper
The Talmud (Ketuboth 67b) tells an amazing story that teach us to what extent a person must go to avoid putting another human being to shame. The Talmud relates that an extremely poor person lived in the neighbourhood of Mar Ukva, one of the Rabbis of the Talmud. The Rabbi would daily leave four coins behind the pauper’s door so that the pauper did not know who his benefactor was. In this way, he would not be embarrassed if he met him. However, the pauper was curious to know who was being so kind to him. One day he 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, says the Talmud, 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 came 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 to hide there. Mar Ukva’s feet started to burn on the stones, whereas his wife’s feet were unharmed. His wife said to him, “Put your feet on mine” and in this way he was saved from further burns. But Mar Ukva felt bad that this miracle had only happened to his wife and not to him. She explained to him that she merited this miracle because the level 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 and they have to go themselves and buy food.” Asks the Talmud, “Why did Mar Ukva and his wife have to run and hide in a hot stone oven?” The Talmud answers, “Because a person should rather let oneself get thrown into a burning furnace than put another person to shame.” In this case, Mar Ukva and his wife took this dictum to new heights. They were not in any way causing embarrassment to this poor person. He only had himself and his curiosity to blame as he wanted to know who his benefactors were.
No good if embarrass
This is what the Torah expects of us. Even when we do a good deed, such as giving charity, we have to be extremely cautious not to embarrass the recipient. The Talmud explains that we find a similar situation when one gives reproof to a fellow human being. It says (Vayikra 19:17) “You shall reproof your fellow … and do not bear a sin because of him.” What sin is the Torah referring to? The Talmud (Erechin 16b) explains that the Torah is referring to the sin of embarrassing someone. For even when one has to reprove another person, one has to be cautious to do so in a soft way and not speak harshly so as not to embarrass the other person. Doing a mitzvah does not justify embarrassing or putting someone to shame. The Torah teaches us to be extremely sensitive and cautious of other’s feelings of embarrassment. No good comes from causing 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.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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