The sons of Jacob find themselves before Egypt’s second in command, unaware that it’s really their brother Joseph. Falsely accused of espionage and of stealing from the royal palace, about to lose their father’s beloved son Benjamin — whom they swore to protect from harm — Judah approaches the viceroy determined to end this downward spiral though all means.
It is at precisely this moment that Joseph cannot hide his true identity any longer, and he asks all but his brothers to leave the room. The Midrash (Tanchuma) notes that to ask everyone to leave was practically suicidal for Joseph. Fearing for Benjamin’s life, his brothers could easily justify killing Joseph, and there would be no witness to the act.
Rather, concludes the Midrash, Joseph’s overriding concern was for his brother’s dignity. When they discovered that they had severely erred in their judgment of Joseph and his dreams, that they had put their father through 22 torturous years of mourning for naught, they would certainly not want to be in the public eye. Joseph selflessly risked his life for the sake of his brothers’ dignity.
It’s a powerful message to us. Our culture glorifies the embarrassment of others; recorded gaffes and insults to those in the public eye go viral on youtube, and biting one-line remarks make up a good portion of today’s humor. Magazines whose sole purpose is gossip — usually of the least complimentary kind — abound. Where has the respect for human dignity gone?