In this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash, Yosef ensured that his father and family were safely brought down to Egypt in order to take proper care of them. Thus making certain the next step in the destiny of the Jewish people, promised to Avraham, would be fulfilled.
Yet, the medrish, Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (perek 39) relates, “Rebbe Yishmael says, ten times did the sons of Yaakov say to Yosef ‘Our father, your servant,’ and Yosef heard these words and was quiet, and being quiet is like acquiescing, therefore his life was shortened by ten years.” The Bayis Hagadol explains that because the reward for honoring one’s parents is long life, therefore, G-D forbid, the punishment for disrespect is a shortened life. The medrish continues, “Yosef heard that his father came to the border of Egypt, and he took all the people with him to greet his father. A whole nation usually comes out to greet the king, but the king does not go out to greet any person, but you learn from here that one’s father is like a king.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
If one analyzes what happened here, it is quite mystifying why Yosef was punished by having ten years subtracted from his life, he should have lived to 120 and instead he lived to 110 even if at first glance it seems to be measure for measure. First off, the Bayis Hagadol points out that only five times does it mention in the Torah that Yosef’s brothers said to Yosef, ‘Our father, your servant,’ once at the end of parshas Miketz (43:28), and four times in the beginning of parshas Vayigash (44: 24, 27, 30, & 31), but because there was an interpreter between them who repeated what they said to Yosef it was considered ten times. So really, he heard his brothers call their father ‘your master’ five times but it was just quoted over again to Yosef because he had to pretend he did not understand what they were saying so that they wouldn’t figure out who he was. Yosef was not ready to reveal himself to his brothers and he wanted to make sure to reveal himself at the proper time so that all his plans would work out smoothly, to be able to properly take care of his father and show him the respect that he was due. So Yosef had to stay silent even though it looked like he was agreeing that his father was his servant, which looked like a sign of disrespect, but no one knew who he was and he was in fact being quiet out of respect for his father since this was all part of the plan to safely reacquaint himself with his father and resettle him in Egypt. Furthermore, he really only heard his brothers talk that way five times and the interpreter, Yosef’s son, who was only acting, was really just a puppet; so what did Yosef do wrong and why was he so severely punished for disrespecting his father? He didn’t actively do anything and his intent, on the contrary, was to prepare for showing tremendous respect to his father which in fact Rebbe Yishmael goes on to show that he did beginning with when Yaakov first came to Egypt. Yosef, the leader of the country, came to greet him, forgoing his position and treating Yaakov like a king because he was his father. Then he sustained and took care of his father and family for the rest of his life; what greater respect is there? So what did Yosef do to deserve a punishment of his life cut short by ten years?
We must say that Yosef’s intent was to show respect for his father, and in fact he did actively show tremendous respect for his father, and he was concerned about the status and welfare of his father the entire time, and at the time of listening to his brothers and the interpreter his motives were also respect for his father. However, his lack of action and silence in the face of such a comment as ‘Our father, your servant,’ although he was not ready to reveal himself to his brother, was taken “in the eyes” of Hashem as a disrespect to his father because it must be if he would have really been vigilant at honoring his father he would have found a way to not allow them to talk in such a manner. He could have changed the subject or walked out, as he did when he felt he had to cry a couple of times in last week’s Torah portion, or some other way, whatever way would work. Since he didn’t take that initiative, even though his disrespect was as passive as it was, on his level, according to what was expected of a Yosef Hatzadik, it was a lack of honor to his father deserving of punishment measure for measure.
We learn from here how careful we must be to measure our actions and even inactions, for even if we might seem to mean well, we still might not be living up to our fullest potential and what is expected of us.