I am Joseph!” Joseph utters those dramatic words “Ani Yosef!!” twice. The first time – before giving them a chance to react or respond – and in the very same breath, he continues with the words “Is my father still alive?” This was the most natural question in the world for a son to ask after being separated from his father for so long, especially as his mother had died while giving birth to his younger brother. Immediately after this, Joseph repeats those dramatic words “Ani Yosef!!” but this time he continues “your brother, whom you sold to Egypt!”

The Torah describes the brothers’ reaction as follows “The brothers could not answer him, for they were ashamed before him”. Again, this is a very natural reaction by the brothers who were indeed responsible for Joseph landing up as a slave in Egypt. And when our sages refer to this shame, they use it to send a strong message to all of us. “If Joseph. Of flesh and blood, was able to shame them so, just by uttering those two words “Ani Yosef!!”, how much more shame will we mortals feel when having to face the wrath of HaShem. Powerful indeed.

But there’s a problem. The shame experienced by the brothers is documented already after the first utterance, before he reminds them that they sold him. The brothers “could not answer him for they were ashamed before him” after hearing the words “Is my father still alive?” Why would Joseph’s natural question have such an effect on his brothers, even before being openly reprimanded for their cowardly act?

The Netziv explains that the brothers had convinced themselves that they were in their right to punish Joseph, and prevent him from further relating dreams that caused jealousy among themselves, and anguish to their old father. Joseph might not agree with their logic, but he had enough time to reflect on what they had done, and this was the most plausible explanation to justify the deed – in their minds. But they showed by what they did that their concern was solely for themselves – and their jealousy. Because if they were so concerned for their father, how could they allow themselves to bring him Joseph’s coat of many colours soaked in blood, and let Yakov believe his beloved son had been torn apart by a wild animal? Surely that anguish and pain would be unbearable and even cause Yakov to die from a broken heart!

I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” Those words penetrated immediately and they realised what a terrible thing they had done, not just to Joseph, but even more so to their father. “The brothers could not answer him for they were ashamed before him”.

On this specific shame, when they realised what they had done, our sages comment how much more embarrassing it will be when we are rebuked by HaShem. Too often we justify our actions, but from a purely subjective standpoint. We too easily convince ourselves that we were right to this or that. But when it adversely affects others, there can be no justification. Only shame and remorse.

Joseph was testing his brothers, but also sending us a powerful message.

Shabbat Shalom