The confrontation between Yosef and Yehudah reached its crescendo when Yosef finally broke down before his brothers after hearing Yehudah’s evocative recollection of the events which Yosef had engineered to provoke them:
And Yosef could no longer hold himself in check (l’hitapek) before all who stood attendance upon him, and he cried, ‘Clear out everyone around me!’ And no man stood with him when Yosef made himself know to his brothers. And he wept out loud… (Genesis 45:1-2)
This was the third time that Yosef had cried upon seeing his brothers. The other times he managed to hold back his tears until he could do it privately. This time, however, he could no longer refrain from crying publically and broke down before his brothers. What made this time different and why did he demand to clear the room before he revealed himself to his brothers?
The above translation captures the consensus of commentators in expressing the plain meaning of Yosef’s response. Yosef was simply unable to maintain his composure any longer. (See Tangum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam) and could not keep from crying (Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor – France 12th century).
Rashi and Ramban (Nahmanides – Spain 13th century) saw deeper concerns in Yosef’s behavior. Rashi asserted that Yosef’s chief worry was protecting his brothers’ dignity lest the Egyptians become aware of their past deeds and it cause the brothers embarrassment:
He (Yosef) was not able to suffer that the Egyptians should be in his presence and hear of his brothers’ embarrassment when he informed them [who he was].
Ramban took this idea one step further. He saw in Yosef’s actions a concern not only for his people’s reputation but, moreover, for the consequences of knowledge of their deeds both for his brothers (his people) and for himself as a representative of his people serving others:
The reason for their removal from there was so that that they would not hear when he (Yosef) reminded them of the sale, for it would be for them and also for him a stumbling block, that Pharaoh’s slaves and the Egyptians could say of them: ‘They are a traitorous people. (Zephaniah 3:4) They should not live in our land and traverse our castles (See Micah 5:4) – for since they betrayed their brother as well as their father, what will they do to the king and his people?’ And so, they will also no longer trust in Yosef.
In some sense, then, both Rashi and Ramban have turned this dramatic moment in the confrontation between Yosef and Yehudah into a didactic moral lesson on the importance of maintaining a good reputation. Rashi sees it as important for maintaining one’s individual well-being while Ramban sees it as necessary for establishing healthy and positive relations with the world.