This week Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers and is re-united with Yaakov, his father, who’s grief turns to joy when he comes to the realisation that Yosef is still alive after all these years.

The moment when Yosef reveals his identity provides an unlikely insight into a seemingly unconnected topic central to Jewish belief – that of the concept of reward and punishment. The obvious question is, how?

Having removed everyone but his brothers from the room Yosef declares “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”

The verse continues: “And his (Yosef’s) brothers were unable to answer him because they were left disconcerted before him.[1][1]”

The inability of the brothers to respond was due to the deep and intense embarrassment they felt when they realised that Yosef was standing in front of them[2][2].

Based on this verse, the medrash[3][3] states the following: “ Woe unto us on the day of ‘din’ (literally judgement), woe unto us on the day of rebuke… Yosef was the youngest of his brothers (aside from Binyamin who was not involved in the sale of Yosef) and yet his brothers were unable to stand face-to-face with him in response to such rebuke… how much more so when G-d points out each of our shortcomings and failings (when we die and arrive for heavenly judgement)…”

Two real issues present themselves:

Firstly, where was this rebuke that Yosef allegedly gave his brothers that left them feeling so ashamed and unable to even speak? It would seem that Joseph did nothing more than reveal his identity?

More fundamentally – what is this concept of ‘the day of judgement’ and ‘heavenly rebuke’ which allegedly awaits us all? This may all sound very ‘religious’ – the concept of arriving at the pearly gates and having all our good and bad points totted up before being sent to the appropriate place certainly sounds familiar – but how jewish is it? Do we really believe that life is a game where we accumulate good and bad points and the balance you end up with determines whether you get a pat on the back and lots of prizes, or get forced to suffer as some sort of pay-back for all your ‘debts’?

The shame and rebuke the brothers felt when Yosef revealed his true identity was not because Yosef was criticising them. On the contrary he sought to convince them that he harboured no ill-feeling towards them. The fact that the brothers now realised how wrong they had been in their earlier estimations about Yosef is also not an adequate explanation; it is clear that the brothers had long since recognised they were wrong in their treatment of Yosef and had undergone a major teshuva process since.

The shame the brothers felt as a result of hearing the words ‘I am Yosef’ was as a result of the intensity of recognition of the error of their previous ways. Their realisation that they had invested so much in something so futile, and ultimately wrong despite all their good intentions, was overwhelming.

When the brothers had plotted against Yosef in response to his dreams, they did so in the genuine belief that they were doing the right thing. They feared that these dreams were a dangerous attempt of Yosef to disrupt and pervert the course of Jewish history and believed they were acting responsibly. They had already realised that they were mistaken. Yet with Yosef revealing himself, not just as having survived but as having become a ruler in line with his earlier dreams, the brothers saw with absolute pin-point clarity the futility of their earlier actions and beliefs.

Imagine deciding to save every spare penny you could to invest in a bank account which, in 10 years time, will allow you to take early retirement and enjoy the rest of your life without having to work another day. Each and every week you cut back on every non-necessity spurred on by the thought of the bliss of never having to think about work again. You stop eating out and going out. Whenever there is an extra project available at work, you take it. You obsessively ensure you send a bigger and bigger cheque to the bank every month to boost your savings. Then when 10 years are up you excitedly head to the address on the bank statements to collect those suitcases of crisp ₤50’s that hold the key to your happiness. Yet when you arrive there is something not quite right. Instead of a bank you find a derelict building at the given address with the sign ‘Filed for bankruptcy’ on the door of the empty building.

At that single moment a million images all simultaneously race through your mind – the gruelling hours in the office, the evenings sat at home refusing to spend a penny on going out, the obsession with which he ensured that cheque was sent on time every month etc…. The depth of realisation that he invested in an empty goal will be totally overwhelming.

This is exactly what Yosef’s brothers experienced when they appreciated, or rather experienced in a very real way, the emptiness of their earlier actions they had so willingly invested in.

What is the Jewish concept of reward and punishment, and what does this have to do with this discussion?

Firstly, it is logically necessary that there is no such thing as punishment after we die. It is logically inconceivable that an Infinite, all-good G-d lacking nothing needs, or wants, to take revenge for our failings. The Torah itself prohibits this[4][4] and it is impossible, since the Torah defines objective morality, that G-d Himself is vengeful though it is objectively an imperfection to be so[5][5].

What we commonly refer to as punishment is, actually no more (or less) than facing the reality we have created. In the same way that eating certain foods creates a physical reality that one cannot escape from, so too our actions create a spiritual reality. The reward or punishment we experience is simply the feeling of intense of joy and satisfaction, or disappointment; we appreciate when we are faced with that reality.

It is the experience of Yosef’s brothers when faced with this flash of instant recognition, which serves as a basis for our understanding of the Jewish concept of reward and punishment. For us this means that we must always be aware of our true goals in life and how close we are to achieving them in hoping to look back at our years of hard work with a sense of real satsifacton and acheivement.

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[1][1] 45.3 [2][2] Rashi 45.3 [3][3] Yilkot Vayigash 247,152 [4][4] Leviticus 19.18 – ‘Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge’ [5][5] See drashos haran #10 (p.377, Mosad HaRav Kook). All feedback welcome: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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