In Parshas Vayigash, the drama between Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax. Joseph was the ruler of Egypt, and his brothers, who came to purchase food from him, did not recognize him. Joseph staged a theft from himself, framing his brother Benjamin as the thief, and pretended that he was about to take him as a slave for his crime. Judah then confronted Joseph in a threatening manner, insisting that Joseph release Benjamin, and offered to be taken as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph could no longer restrain himself. He ordered all his Egyptian attendants to leave, and he revealed his true identity.
The Medrash Tanchuma (chapter 5) says that Joseph put his life on the line by doing this. The Medrash describes a whole dialogue that took place between Joseph and Judah, in which Judah threatened to wage war against the entire Egypt. Judah and his brothers were very powerful, and it was no empty threat. Despite this, when the confrontation was reaching a climax, Joseph ordered that all the Egyptians leave. This made him extremely vulnerable to an attack by the furious Judah and his brothers. Why did he do this? Why didn’t he keep at least his bodyguards with him for self-defense?
The Medrash says a remarkable thing. Joseph said to himself, “Better I should get killed than I should embarrass my brothers in front of the Egyptians!” Joseph knew that as soon as his brothers realized the truth, they would become full of shame. They were the ones who kidnapped him and sold him as a slave, and now he is the mighty ruler, reprimanding them for their misdeed. If this was done in front of the Egyptians, it would be extremely humiliating for the brothers to face this in public.
This is a tremendous lesson for us in how careful we must be for the sake of avoiding public embarrassment of others. What Judah and his brothers did to Joseph was a most terrible crime. Because of them, Joseph was torn away from his family at the young age of seventeen. He experienced the humiliation of becoming a slave, and suffered a lot along the way. At one point, he languished in prison for a long time because of trumped up charges, which would not have happened if he were at home. And now, he could have easily legitimized having his brothers suffer some humiliation at being confronted with their wrongdoing.
But no. Joseph would not allow it. He chose to put his own life in danger, rather than cause his brothers shame in public.
This is not just Joseph’s personal way of conducting himself. The Talmud says as a rule (Brachos, 43b), “It is better for a person to fall into a furnace of fire, rather than embarrass his friend publicly.” This can be understood with what the Talmud tells us (Bava Metzia, 58b) that causing someone to turn white from shame in public is akin to murder.
The Mishnah (Avos, 3:11) goes so far as to say that even someone who performs a lot of Mitzvos (Torah commandments) and learns a lot of Torah can lose his entire share in the World to Come! One time, a student was sitting at a class given by Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg, and he attempted to get his friend’s attention. He did not want their rebbi (teacher), Rabbi Rothenberg, to notice, so he gave his friend a little kick under the table. The friend did not respond however, so he kicked him again a bit harder. Once again there was no response, and gave him an even harder kick. But still, there was no response forthcoming from his friend. He made one last attempt with a really strong kick, but to no avail. Just then, he noticed Rabbi Rothenberg smiling at him. That is when he realized that he was really kicking his dear rebbi the whole time! But in order not to embarrass his student in front of his peers, Rabbi Rothenberg bore the pain and did not utter a word.
Enduring pain or putting ourselves at risk for the sake of preserving the dignity of others, is certainly a high level that may not be easily reached. But the first thing we must do is absorb the lesson in how severe it is in the eyes of the Torah to embarrass someone in front of others. Whether we are with family, friends or strangers, we must be very careful to preserve every person’s dignity, and not say anything that can embarrass someone in front of others.
Parshas Vayigash by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber