How long do first impressions last? The Talmud states that teaching the
young is like writing on new parchment, parchment that was never us
erased. Teaching the “not-young” is like writing on previously erased
parchment, something always remains from the old writing. How long do
first impressions last? They last forever they can never be completely
For how long must we express appreciation? In a conversation this past
week with a person struggling with her obligation of Kibud Av V’Em
(honoring father and mother), I explained that the Mitzvah of honoring
parents is predicated on the concept of appreciation. A child abandoned at
birth or given up for adoption is obligated to show his biological parents
all aspects of Kibud Av V’Em. Why? Because they, and they alone, partnered
with G-d in giving him life and the gift of life demands life-long
appreciation. (Of course, the level of honor and appreciation owed the
adopting parents is beyond measure. It is a kindness that qualifies at the
highest level of chesed - a Chesed Shel Emes.) For how long must we
express appreciation? Forever.
Upon returning from Yakov’s burial in Canaan, the brothers became
concerned. With Yakov gone they feared that Yoseph would exact revenge for
their having sold him into slavery. The Medresh Tanchumah explains that
while Yakov was alive Yoseph insisted that the family eat with him as
often as possible, but upon returning to Mitzrayim Yoseph stopped inviting
his brothers over. They began to fear Yoseph’s retribution. (50:15)
Perhaps Yoseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay
us all the evil that we did him.”
The brothers decided to lie (see Rashi) to Yoseph. (50:16-17) “Your father
said, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers, brother’s request
he wept and then reassured them that they had nothing to fear.
Seventeen years had passed since Yoseph revealed himself to his brothers.
At that time Yoseph assured them that they were all pawns on G-d’s
celestial chessboard and that he harbored no resentments against them for
the miracle of their ultimate survival and redemption! For seventeen years
Yoseph had cared for his brothers and their families with loving concern.
He treated them with respect and dignity caring for every need and want.
In the caste system of Egypt he elevated them to the status of “priests”
with all the attendant advantages. For the sake of their comfort and
safety, both spiritual and physical, he had reorganized the entire
Egyptian society so that every citizen became a slave and every community
was then transplanted from their place of origin and resettled elsewhere
in Egypt. How could the brothers think that Yoseph would punish them after
the death of Yakov?
First impressions are never fully erased. The early years of conflict and
ill will that prevailed between Yoseph and his brothers left an insidious
distrust in the hearts and minds of the brothers. Yoseph never distrusted
his brothers until he was sold into slavery. Once sold, his life became
the stuff of fantasy and legend. He had all the time to consider his
situation and discover the not so hidden hand of G-d directing his and
their destiny. He had the time to wait for G-d’s plan to come together. He
could anticipate an eventual reunion and was prepared for the emotional
fall-out. As a seventeen year old he may not have agreed with their
approach to certain issues of family / national concern, however, he never
believed that their intentions were evil, misguided no. On the other hand,
during those early years the brothers considered Yoseph a real threat to
their spiritual existence. They were not as generous in their assessment
of his intentions. Their first impressions were very distrusting,
suspicious, and hateful. Given cause, the first impressions easily
But there is much more to the story.
Why did Yoseph stop inviting them over? (See ArtScroll 50:15-21) The
Medresh Tanchumah and the Gur Areyeh offer insight into Yoseph’s all
encompassing insight and wisdom. The Medresh says that while Yakov was
alive, Yoseph insisted that he sit at the head of the table. Regardless of
the fact that Yoseph was Viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph insisted that Yakov
occupy the seat of honor. With Yakov’s death, Yoseph still felt that he
did not deserve to sit “at the head of the table.” The Talmud extracts
from the way the Ten Commandments state the Mitzvah of Kibud Av V’Em that
younger siblings must honor the oldest sibling; therefore, Yoseph did not
want to sit at the head while Yehudah (real king) and Reuven (oldest) sat
with the rest. At the same time, it would have been insulting to the honor
of Egypt for a mere brother to supplant the place of honor otherwise
reserved for the Viceroy; therefore, he decided that the best thing would
be to avoid the conflict and stopped inviting them over.
(Note: Imagine Yoseph’s humility! In last week’s Rabbi’s Notebook I
explained that Yoseph accepted Yakov’s critique of his interaction with
his brothers and assumed full responsibility for the negative impressions
that he had fostered. Yoseph did not play at humility, he lived it. He
trul himself as a pawn of G-d designated to serve his brothers and family.
No other honor was due him except for the political expediency of his
station. That more so than anything else allowed Yoseph not to harbor
resentment against his brothers.)
The Gur Areyeh explains that Yoseph’s concerns were even more profound and
disturbing. Yoseph never trusted the Egyptians and their generosity. He
knew their nature and knew how self-absorbed they were. He knew that their
appreciation for him was tinged with fear and jealousy. He knew that many
resented his rise to power and the manner in which he had manipulated
their entire nation. True, if not for Yoseph they would have all starved
and they would have never become the dominant world power that they had
become; nevertheless, Yoseph did not harbor any illusions and did not
trust anyone but G-d.
Yoseph’s distrust of the Egyptians allowed him to sense the subtle shift
in their attitudes once Yakov had died. He picked up that they were very
watchful of his relationship with his brothers and decided to curtail some
of the special attention he had become accustomed to showing them.
Imagine! A man miraculously appears and saves the nation. A man appears
who is directly responsible for keeping your family alive and well. How
long should you show appreciation to that man? Forever! Yet, Yoseph knew
that appreciation and humility are one and the same. Someone who is not
humble can never truly express appreciation.
Yakov’s coming to Egypt helped Yoseph see the first signs of anti-
Semitism. Seven years of plenty had come and gone. Two years of hunger had
come and gone. In the two years of hunger Yoseph’s reputation as the
great “Sustainer” had been established and proven. During that relatively
short period of time Yoseph had reorganized the entire social structure of
Egypt. Yakov then arrived and the hunger stopped. True, the two years of
hunger were so severe that the seven years of plenty were all but
forgotten; however, the aftermath of the two years was everlasting. The
Egyptians remembered Yoseph and his strong handed manipulation of the
economy. Seven years of forced grain taxation and storage and then two
years of rationing did not make him very beloved - feared and effective
yes, beloved no. Nevertheless, Yoseph stayed the course because he knew it
was G-d’s plan to bring Yakov to Mitzrayim and begin the years of slavery.
With Yakov’s arrival, Yakov became the new hero. Yakov had taken nothing
from the Egyptians and had given them everything. Yakov did become the
most beloved man in Egypt, and everyone mourned his death. With Yakov’s
death and burial in Canaan, the Egyptians could easily begin to forget.
The Egyptians remember their reasons for unease and resentment, and Yoseph
was concerned. Underlying their stated appreciation were the first
impressions of a Hebrew slave who had mysteriously risen to become
viceroy. The Egyptians conveniently forgot that Pharaoh demanded Yoseph’s
appointment and only remembered the impressions that justified their
resentments and subsequent actions.