Thursday, December 17, 2015

Parsha Vayigash: Why We Don't Embarrass or Criticize People Publicly

Sometimes, I am amazed at the world of communication that social media platforms such as Facebook have opened up for people. I am also perturbed at how such communication has devolved, especially when I see Facebook "discussions" on politics or religion. The line between criticizing ideas to criticizing people has been all the more blurred, and people will hurl insults at people simply due to disagreement. It is all too easy to forget there is another human being on the other end of the conversation. Enough people feel justified in this sort of public lambasting by saying "I was offended", "they shouldn't have posted if they were going to be that stupid in the first place," or "I was just telling it to them like it is." While this behavior does not explain every single person's interactions on social media, it has sadly become a trend where we desensitize ourselves to the other because that level of self-gratification or need to stroke one's ego has become of such great importance. For so many people, such platforms become a carte blanche to embarrass people simply because it's expedient.

Contrast that with Jewish ethics, and what we see in this week's Torah portion. We're at the point in the Joseph story where Judah begs for Benjamin's life. Joseph's brothers did not want to make the same mistake that they did with Joseph. Judah argues that the news of Benjamin's imprisonment would be ever so deleterious to Jacob's health. After this explanation, the text says that he could not refrain himself anymore. He cleared the room so it was just Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 45:1). It was at that moment that Joseph revealed his true identity (ibid. 45:3), and the family reunion thus took place. The question I have here is why Joseph felt the need to clear his Egyptian entourage out of the room. What exactly was Joseph doing by making the rest of the conversation between his brothers a private one?

For one, this was a personal matter. Joseph couldn't hold back anymore (45:1). He realized that his brothers had gone through the teshuvah process and repented, and thus wanted the moment to be an intimate, family moment (JPS edition of Tanach). There was more than a sense of intimacy and privacy for its own sake to consider. According to Rashi, Joseph cleared out the room because he could not bear having his brothers shamed in front of bystanders when it was announced that the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. The Ramban adds to the reasoning. The Ramban says that letting the Egyptians know what the brothers did to Joseph would have put the brothers in danger. After all, if this is how they treated Joseph, who is now the right-hand man of the most powerful ruler of the era, how would they treat the rest of them? They could have been denied access to the country or even worse!

What can we learn from this rabbinic commentary? Joseph was clearly in a state of emotional disarray. Joseph could no longer put up the fa├žade (45:1), and his cries were so loud that they were of universal concern to the Egyptians (R. Hirsch's commentary on 45:3). Even in his emotional state, Joseph was able to keep a clear enough head to save his brothers from embarrassment. He acted in such a way that didn't compound upon the guilt that his brothers already felt for what they did to Joseph in days past.

Joseph was not just being a tactful statesman. He was outlining how we should conduct ourselves with our interpersonal relations, all the more so when we're under emotional duress. Given what his brothers put him through, Joseph arguably had every right to emotionally torment them, throw them in prison, or even execute his brothers. Instead, the way in which Joseph identified himself showed that he had enough foresight to realize that his words would have important consequences if uttered publicly. All too often, people misunderstand situations because they don't have enough context to understand what is going on. Author Stefan Emunds once said that 90 percent of arguments are caused by misunderstandings, and 9.9 percent by conflicts of interest. Joseph had the wisdom to realize that his words could easily cause misunderstanding, and thus kept the conversation private. He was also emotionally aware at that moment that his brothers were created in His Image, and should be treated as such. If rebuked publicly, the consequences for Joseph's brothers would have been dire. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a; Ketubot 67b) teaches that it's [metaphorically] better to throw oneself into a furnace than to embarrass another in public. Joseph shows us not simply what to utter, but how, where, and when to utter what needs to be said. May we learn from Joseph's example and improve upon our speech ethics along the way.

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