The Ultimate Rebuke

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers: “And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence.” (Genesis 45:3)

The Midrash Rabba states: “Abba Kohen Bardelah said ‘Woe to us for the day of judgement, woe to us for the day of rebuke… Joseph was the youngest of the tribes and his brothers could not answer him because they were shocked…, when God comes and rebukes each individual….’” (Midrash Rabba 93:10)

Our commentators are perplexed by this Midrash. All Joseph said was: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” He never berated his brothers! He never shouted at them! Where did Joseph rebuke his brothers? The Hebrew word tocheicha (rebuke) has the same root letters as the Hebrew word lehochiach (to prove something). The Jewish concept of rebuke has nothing to do with punishment, screaming at or berating someone. The Jewish concept of rebuke is helping someone to realize they have made a mistake, acted sinfully, or are misguided. The moment Joseph said to his brothers “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”, they realized that the very same pain that they were trying to save their father from now, they had inflicted on him twenty-two years earlier. Joseph probably said these words softly and quietly, but they were enough for his brothers to deeply realize their misguided actions, which caused Joseph and their father (Jacob) such intense pain.

Rebbi Natan points out that when we help others see their errors, we should do so with love. We should also have the intention to help others improve and better themselves. The Torah expressed the Mitzvah of rebuke as follows: “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but not bare sin (in the process).” In Hebrew, the verse reads: “Hocheach tochiach et Amitecha….”. The Ba’al Shem Tov points out that the Hebrew word et also means with. This implies that you should take rebuke together with your fellow. If you notice your fellow’s mistake, God is telling you that you are also probably guilty of the same mistake, and that you also need to improve your ways. Rebuke should look something like this: I have been thinking about it and we have a lot of improvement to do. We are making the following mistake in different ways. Let’s improve together. Friends, let us help each other develop and grow with love and respect.