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 erased.
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 reasserted themselves.
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.
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.