WHAT do all of the following have in common?
Two people marry. It doesn’t work from the start. They give it a good try, counseling and everything, but they are simply a mismatch. They divorce. Feelings are bitter. They use the kids as pawns.
A long time employee is discharged. He did a good job, but a budget crunch has made his position unviable. When he is let go, he is paid in full, but his years of service go unmentioned.
A close relative died (one of the seven close relatives for whom one is obligated to undertake formal mourning, to sit shiva). Right after the funeral, the survivor stops by a friend’s house because of a prior invitation, then goes home to sit shiva.
A doctor analyzes the tests with great expertise. The doctor, an expert, is very busy, and many people depend on his expertise. Taking a minute or two, he tells the patient he is terminal; there’s nothing medical science can do.
The repairman completes his job. The broken car (computer, garage door, washing machine, air conditioning, sprinkler system, crutches) now work. The repairman is paid. He is not thanked.
What these scenarios have in common is this: People did the right thing the wrong way.
Justified divorce does not justify using the kids.
Protecting an institution by discharging an employee is wise, but empathy for the victim, not to mention gratitude for his service, is required.
To sit shiva after the death of a close relative is a mitzvah; a social obligation, just then, is not.
Medical expertise is a blessing; bedside manner is not an extra, it is part of the the delivery of medical care, especially when the diagnosis is terminal.
Gratitude is not an obligation that is suspended when a person is paid for doing his job.
Here is an opposite case: People do the right thing the right way.
The legendary builder and philanthropist Paul Reichman recently died in Canada. Before his company, Olympia and York, went bankrupt in 1992, the Reichman family was responsible for a significant portion of the skyline in Manhattan and other fabulously successful construction projects.
It is estimated that the family gave away $1 billion in tzedakah.
The Reichmans overextended themselves on the Canary Wharf project in London and went bankrupt. (The family later helped complete the project, though without an ownership interest.) At the time of bankruptcy, Paul Reichman said he could salvage $1 billion from among his much greater losses.
He could salvage the $1 billion — it would be legal.
But it wouldn’t look right.
And if it didn’t look right, he didn’t want to do it. It did not meet his ethical standard.
He walked away from $1 billion.
TO do the right thing the wrong way is, well, wrong. This is seen in a perspicacious comment of Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the “Netziv,” 1816-1892) in this week’s Torah portion.
Joseph’s brothers sold him down to Egypt. Their prior relationship was, as we would say today, “fraught.” Joseph had slandered his brothers to their father (Gen. 37:2). Joseph had dreamt what seemed to be outrageously arrogant dreams with his brothers (and parents) bowing down to him (37:5-10). Joseph’s father favored him because he was the youngest; he was also the only son of the wife whom his father Jacob loved, Rachel (37:3).
For all of these reasons, or perhaps for one more than another, Joseph’s brothers hated him (37:4, 8), were jealous of him (37:11), and couldn’t even speak to him in peace (37:4).
However one adds up the rights and wrongs in this messy relationship, the Netziv is not prepared to state definitively that Joseph’s brothers were wrong in desiring to punish him. Perhaps Joseph had it coming. Nonetheless, a famously perplexing verse in this week’s Torah portion shows that the sale of Joseph down to Egypt was wrong — his brothers may have intended to do something right, but they certainly did it the wrong way.
This is the immediate background to the preplexing verse.
Judah has just begged Joseph not to send him and his brothers home to Canaan minus the one brother, Benjamin, whose absence could kill their father Jacob (Gen. 44:18-34). Judah succeeds. Joseph relents. Joseph famously cries out (45:3):
“I am Joseph . . . ” (the mystery of Joseph’s alternatively kind and cruel treatment of his brothers is now clear) “ . . . is my father still alive?”
This question is extraordinarily perplexing; indeed, it is ridiculous. Judah has just told Joseph that Jacob would die if Benjamin does not return from Egypt. Of course Jacob is alive! The verse, as I say, is famously perplexing.
The Netziv observes:
If Joseph wanted to ask about their father at all, his question should have been formulated this way: “Is our father alive?” Jacob, after all, is the father of both Joseph and Judah; and the conversation here is between the two of them, with reference, no less, to Benjamin and the rest of the brothers — and Jacob is the father of them all.
But Joseph does not ask, Is our father alive? He asks, Is my father alive?
The Netziv writes that Joseph asks the question the way he does, and asks a question to which the answer is obvious, to make a bitter point. By asking, is my father still alive, Joseph is saying to Judah: Whatever claims you had against me long ago, why didn’t you consider the effect of your actions against me on father Jacob? Even if you were right in seeking to punish me, you surely did it the wrong way, because you brought tremendous anguish to Jacob. You tricked him into believing that I was devoured by a wild beast! (37:31-33).
“Here you are,” Joseph in effect is telling Judah, “pleading for the life of Jacob, expecting me to believe you care about the potential effect on Jacob of the absence of Benjamin. Well, where was your love and concern for Jacob 22 years ago, when you sold me down to Egypt? You totally dismissed the feelings of Jacob then. The only one of the sons who treated Jacob as a father was I, not you. So I ask you, Is my father alive?”
This interpretation explains the rest of the verse perfectly, writes the Netziv. “‘ . . . is my father still alive’? And his brothers could not answer him, for they were panicked in front of him.” Alternative translation: “they were disconcerted (or confounded) before him.”
Because they got the message. They grasped the admonishment. They were shamed and afraid. Their concern for the welfare of Jacob now appeared to be either hypocritical or johnny-come-lately. The drastic damage that Benjamin’s absence would bring Jacob, which they now professed to want to avoid, they themselves had inflicted on Jacob 22 years earlier.
RABBI Israel Salanter once said, “A person can destroy the whole world running to do a mitzvah.”
Releasing the marriage bond can, in certain circumstances, be a mitzvah — but destroying the children in the process is not.
Paying a worker his due is a mitzvah — but denying him an expression of gratitude is not.
Clipping the wings of an insufferable, arrogant person may be a mitzvah — but destroying his father in the process is not.
And walking away from $1 billion may be a mitzvah, if securing the money may be legal but ugly.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News