Parashat Miketz: Setting an Example
The Torah in Parashat Miketz tells the story of Yosef’s brothers who come to Egypt to purchase grain. Unbeknownst to them, Yosef, whom they had sold as a slave many years earlier, had risen to the position of Egyptian vizier, and when they come before him to purchase grain, they did not recognize him. Yosef accused them of coming to Egypt as spies, and imprisoned them. Three days later, he released them, and informed them that he had changed his mind. He would keep one brother in prison in Egypt while the others return to Canaan to bring the youngest brother, Binyamin, and this would prove that they are not spies.
When Yosef approached them after the three-day imprisonment to inform them of the change in plans, he first said, "This is what you shall do and thereby live; I am God-fearing" (42:18). Why did Yosef tell the brothers that he is "God fearing"? Rav Shimon Schwab (Germany-New York, 1908-1995) offers a brilliant explanation of Yosef’s intent in these words. The defining characteristic of a God-fearing person is his ongoing self-evaluation. Somebody who truly fears God is constantly reexamining his conduct and lifestyle to determine what needs to be corrected or improved. He never feels completely comfortable and at ease with himself; he is always questioning and reexamining so he can continue to grow. This is what Yosef was telling the brothers: "Because I am God-fearing, I reconsidered my decision, and concluded that I should let you free."
Rav Schwab noted that this insight also explains the brothers’ reaction to Yosef’s new decision. The Torah says, "They did so" (42:20), which, at first glance, means that Yosef’s new decision was implemented, and one brother was imprisoned while the others returned to Canaan. However, the Torah explicitly records this happening several verses later, indicating that "They did so" refers to something else. Rav Schwab explained that the phrase "They did so" introduces what the Torah writes immediately thereafter – that the brothers expressed remorse over the sale of Yosef, and realized that the tribulations they were experiencing in Egypt were a punishment for what they did to their brother. In other words, the brothers learned from Yosef’s example. Seeing how Yosef reconsidered his decision out of his fear of God, they, too, "did so" – they followed his example, and they looked back at their past deeds and reexamined their conduct. They were inspired by the Egyptian vizier, who treated them harshly but then reconsidered and changed his mind, and they, too, revisited their decisions of the past. And they realized that they acted wrongly in the way they treated Yosef, and that they were now being punished for their wrongdoing.
One lesson we can learn from this insight is the influential power of setting a personal example. Yosef taught by example the critical lesson of self-examination, and it had a profound impact upon the brothers. If we wish to influence the people around us, especially our children, the most effective way of doing this is by setting a personal example, by modeling the kind of behavior we want others to embrace. It worked for Yosef – and it can work for us, as well.