When looking at the lives of the Avot, the three forefathers of the People of Israel, it is remarkable to note that not one of them was officially called a tzaddik (righteous man) by the Talmudic and midrashic Sages. Only Yaakov’s son Yosef was granted that title. [Midrash Tanchuma 58:4] This is rather strange, since it cannot be denied that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were also outstandingly pious people.
It may be that the reason for this special honor is because, paradoxically, Yosef did not at all appear to be a tzaddik. If anything, the reverse might have been more accurate.
There can be little doubt that during Yosef’s reign in Egypt, he must have been seen as a ruthless person who didn’t hesitate to make the lives of his fellow people unbearable, particularly those of his brothers and father. However, we should not overlook the fact that the Torah and commentaries offer readers a huge advantage, telling them the whole story in just a few chapters, so they have no time to resent Yosef before discovering his righteousness at the end of the story! This privilege, however, was not granted to any of the people with whom Yosef actually spent a good part of his life.
Yosef’s life is the epitome of complicated 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 bad guys are clearly identified. Every choice includes a complex mixture of good and bad. Even with the best intentions, people sometimes cannot help hurting those they really love the most and doing favors for those who are corrupt.
Reading the story, one wonders what must have gone through Yosef’s mind and heart when he took a tough stand against the people of Egypt by buying up everything they owned until he left the entire population with no personal possessions and enslaved to Pharaoh. The text also clearly indicates that he uprooted everyone from their homes, and all of them became refugees in their own country. [Bereishit 47:13-27] This was nothing less than mass population transfer and dispersal, 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. (See: Sigmund Wagner-Tsukamoto, The Genesis of Economic Cooperation in the Stories of Joseph : A Constitutional and Institutional Economic Reconstruction: Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 29,1 (2015) 33-54.)
Still, it must have greatly distressed him 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.
Yosef’s behavior toward his father and brothers must have caused him sleepless nights, year after year. While ruling the Land of Egypt, he never told his father that he was still alive. His 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 terribly strong stand against his brothers, when they came to Egypt to buy food, must have given him nightmares and caused him depression as well. What will my brothers and all the servants in the palace think of me? No doubt, in their eyes I must seem 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 my brothers to bring Binyamin 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 his concern for them that motivated him. [See, for example, Ramban and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this chapter.]
Surely he must have dreamed of the day when he would be able to reveal to them the true motivation behind his harsh actions.
But, as the Torah clearly reveals, even this Yosef was not granted. His father never knew what his real motives were, and his brothers clearly showed after the death of their father that they suspected Yosef would take revenge on them. [Bereishit 50:15] How painful it must have been for Yosef when he realized that even in his old age he could not tell anybody why he did what he did without revealing what his brothers had in fact done to him, and that was morally not an option for him.
He was convinced that he would go to his grave considered by millions to have been a merciless leader. The fact that he saved the economy of the Egyptian people would make little difference in the eyes of all who would never comprehend why he needed to achieve that goal through the harsh measures he took. Their expression of gratitude [Ibid. 47:25] may well have been the kind of forced courtesy often given to a dictator.
What a relief it would have been for him had he known that hundreds of years later the Torah and its commentators would reveal the entire story and prove his righteous intentions! Still, one wonders whether he would have even agreed that God include this story in the Torah, giving his brothers a bad name!
This, indeed, is the tragedy of practically every tzaddik. Tzaddikim are, for the most part, people who are unable to reveal their true intentions and righteousness. Often they must work under the most agonizing circumstances, sometimes hurting people when it is the only way to prevent an even greater tragedy. This is the reason why they cannot always be “nice guys” and “well-mannered people.”
Tzaddikim hold to a higher purpose; they cannot allow themselves to sway with the winds. The saying “When you stand for nothing you fall for everything” applies to them. But standing for something may very well give one a bad name, no matter how noble the intentions. One can only hope that perhaps someday people will discover what they were really all about and how painful it was to be a “hidden tzaddik.” Unfortunately, there is usually little chance of that happening. After all, who is as privileged as Yosef to have his or her real story written in an eternal book?
This is the reason why the title “tzaddik” was bestowed upon Yosef in particular. While it is true that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were illustrious people, the Sages realized that only Yosef had to do so much that he detested doing, so as to become a real tzaddik. In fact, the Midrash makes it abundantly clear that it was the tough measures he took that earned him the title “tzaddik.” [Midrash Tanchuma ibid.]
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 and is a great tragedy. 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 of the recognition of one’s real intentions, gives the ultimate feeling of spiritual satisfaction for which the tzaddik strives.