Thoughts to Ponder Number 71
15 Shevat, 5761; Feb. 8, 2001

Joseph: The Tragedy of Being a Tzaddik

When looking into the lives of the Avoth, the three forefathers of the people of Israel, it is remarkable that not one of them was officially called a tzaddik, a righteous man, by the talmudic and midrashic sages. Only Joseph, the son of Jacob, was officially given this title (Midrash Tanchuma 58:4). This is rather strange, since it cannot be denied that also Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov were outstandingly pious people.

It may, however, be suggested that the reason for this special honor is because, paradoxically, Joseph did not appear to be a real tzaddik.

There can be little doubt that at the time of his reign over Egypt, he must have been seen as a ruthless person who had little reluctance to make the lives of his fellow men unbearable, particularly those of his brothers, his father and the entire Egyptian population. (We should never overlook the fact that it is the Torah and its commentaries that offer the reader a huge advantage, telling him the "whole story" within a few chapters, so that he has no time to bear a grudge against Joseph before discovering his righteousness at the end of the story! This privilege, however, was not given to any of the actual people with whom Joseph spent a good part of his life.)

Joseph's life is the epitome of the complications of human existence in the extreme. It is a life in which human conditions are far from ideal. There are no black and white choices in which it is easy to take a stand and where the good guys and the bad ones are clearly identified. Every choice includes a complex mixture of good and bad. Even with best intentions one sometimes cannot help hurting those one really loves the most and doing favors to those who are corrupt.

Reading the story, one wonders what must have gone through Joseph's mind and heart when he took a hard stand on the people of Egypt by buying up everything that they owned till in the end he made the whole population enslaved to Pharaoh without any private possessions. The text also clearly indicates that he uprooted everybody from their home and that all of them became refugees in their own country (Bereshith 47). This was nothing less than a population expulsion, one of the worst human experiences. Commentators explain that this was the only way he was able to save the country from even greater disasters and in fact the only way to revive the economy. Still, he must have been greatly disturbed to bring about such upheaval in the nation. Few must have understood what he did, and millions must have cursed him for making their lives miserable.

His behavior towards his father and his brothers surely must have given him sleepless nights, year after year. While ruling the land of Egypt, he never told his father that he was still alive. Joseph's own life must have been unbearable every time he thought of his suffering father. "How can I endure one more day knowing that my father is in constant anguish because of me?"

His awful, hard stand against his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy food, must have given him nightmares and depressions. "What will my brothers and all the servants in the palace think of me? No doubt in their eyes I must look like a cruel despot looking for sadistic ways to hurt people wherever possible. What are they thinking of me as I am imprisoning Shimon and forcing the brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt?"

Still, as many commentators explain, he had no option but to do what he did. In fact it was his deep devotion and concern for them which were his motivation. (See, for example, Ramban and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.)

Surely he must have dreamed of the day when he could reveal to them that it was his deepest devotion to them that made him take these harsh steps.

But, as the Torah clearly reveals, even this Joseph was not granted. His father never knew what his real motivations were, and his brothers clearly showed after the death of their father that they suspected that Joseph would take revenge on them (Bereshith 60:50). How painful it must have been for Joseph when he realized that even in his old age nobody would ever know what his real intentions had been! He was convinced that he would go to his grave seen by millions as a merciless leader. (The fact that he saved the economy of the Egyptian people would not make much of a difference in the eyes of the millions who would never be able to understand why there was a need to achieve that goal through the harsh measurements he took. Their show of gratitude (47:25) may well have been the kind of forced courtesy often given to a dictator.)

How much more he must have had these tormenting thoughts when thinking of his brothers. Never would they know what motivated him and how hard he tried to minimize the pain he was forced to cause them!

(What a relief it would have been to him if he would have known that hundreds of years later the Torah and its commentators would reveal the whole story and prove his real righteous intentions!)

This indeed is the tragedy of nearly every tzaddik. Tzaddikim are most of the time people who are not able to reveal their real intentions and righteousness. Often they have to work under the most agonizing circumstances, even hurting people when it is the only way to prevent an even greater tragedy. This is the reason why they cannot always be the "nice guys" and "good mannered" people. Tzaddikim are people who hold to a higher purpose; they cannot allow themselves to sway with the winds. To them applies the saying that if you do not stand for anything you fall for everything. But to stand for something may quite well give one a bad name however noble one's intentions. One can only hope that perhaps one day people will discover what one really was all about and how painful it was to be a "hidden tzaddik." But, usually, there is little chance that such will come about. After all, who has the privilege like Joseph to have his or her real story written in an eternal book?

This is the reason why it was Joseph who was bestowed with the title of tzaddik. While it is true that his father, grandfather and great grandfather were great people, the sages realized that only Joseph had to do so much that he hated to do so as to be a real tzaddik. In fact, the Midrash makes it abundantly clear that it was his hard measurements which earned him the title tzaddik (Midrash Tanchuma ibid.).

This is often the tragedy of the tzaddik. To be righteous with the full awareness that nobody will ever know the real story and to have one's deeds condemned is one of the most painful human experiences. Only the knowledge that the One Above knows the real story and the conviction that it is more important that others benefit from one's deeds than to be assured that others recognize one's real intentions gives the ultimate feeling of spiritual satisfaction for which the tzaddik strives.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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