Selected Sermon/Article
2001-01-06 Vayigash by Rav Ze'ev Smason
Excuses and Rationalizations
Have you ever noticed how people have an incredible capacity to come up with excuses? When it comes to getting ourselves off the hook, there's almost no end to the ingenuity and creativity that a person who needs an excuse will employ.

Students both young and old have come up with some real doozies over the years to explain why their homework wasn't ready to be turned in, or why that essay wasn't ready on time. In fact, some of you here yourselves may have once used such old lines as 'the dog ate my homework', or 'the typewriter broke, and I couldn't finish the paper." My kids have no idea what a typewriter is, but I'm sure you do.

I'd like to share with you a few excuses I saw written that some students actually used. One student, telling why he had failed to turn in his essay, said, "The bus driver liked it so much he kept it to show to his passengers!" Unbelievably, a second student was reported to have told his teacher, "I got mugged on the way to school. I offered him my money, my watch and my penknife -- but all he wanted was my essay!" Perhaps the Grand Prize winner was the student, explaining why he was late who said, "I was kidnapped by aliens and interrogated for three hours."

On occasion we knowingly seek to fool others; but sometimes we unknowingly hoodwink ourselves. When we have a hidden inner agenda, but subconciously deny that plan or motive by coming up with another explanation for our behavior, we're guilty of 'rationalization' -- a prime example of which we see in this week's Sedrah.

The Parsha begins with a heart-rending appeal by Yehuda that Yosef should allow his brother Binyamin to return home to their father Yaakov. What was the basis of Yehuda's appeal to his as-yet unrevealed brother Yosef? Yehuda claimed that if Binyamin wouldn't be released, Yaakov would die of a broken heart. "Our father has suffered terribly, " Yehuda appealed. "He experienced the loss of his beloved wife Rochel who died on the return trip to Israel. He sufffered the trauma of the the disappearance and death of Yosef. If now, you don't allow Binyamin to return", Yehuda continued, "it will have the effect as if all three tragedies happened simultaneously!! Have compassion on our father, and please return the boy!"

Moving, isn't it? Yosef, however, said something curious when he finally revealed himself to his brothers. He said, "Ani Yosef, ha'od avinu chai?" Meaning, "I am Yosef, is our father still alive?" Why, the Beis HaLevi asks, did Yosef ask at this junction whether Yaakov was still alive? His brothers had mentioned several times that Yaakov was still alive, including the passionate appeal of Yehuda, which I just paraphrased. Did Yosef actually want to know whether Yaakov was still alive?

Yosef, the Beis HaLevi explains, was asking a rhetorical question in saying 'is our father still alive'. Specifically, Yosef was stating to Yehuda and his brothers "I'm astonished that our father is still alive, and hasn't died of a broken heart -- given that you are responsible for having sold me into slavery, and you being the cause of the profound emotional suffering our father has gone through for the past 22 years, in my absence. You claim to care about our fathers feelings? Where was your concern 22 years ago, when you threw me into a pit?"

The Torah states that the brothers were silenced, embarrassed and dumbfounded by Yosef's question. His one simple question -- which was really a statement -- stripped away the veneer of 22 years of having rationalized their treatment of Yosef, and showed that they had no claim to caring one iota for their father's feelings.

None of us, if we're honest with ourselves, are beyond succumbing to the temptation to rationalize our behavior. When I was in the midst of writing this sermon yesterday, I had to leave the house to drive carpool for my children at the Epstein Hebrew Academy. Unconciously, I popped in a CD as I pulled away from the house -- until I realized that it was a fast day, and that I have a personal stringency of not listening to music on a fast day. Immediately, however, the rationalizations kicked in, as a voice began to say "Well, you inadvertently listened to music earlier in the day, so why worry about it now?" The voice also came back with, "C'mon -- it's enough just not to be eating and drinking today. There's nothing wrong with listening to music on a fast day." If it hadn't been that I was in the middle of writing a sermon about rationalizations and's quite possible that I would have gone on listening to the music

Is the reason why we aren't able to attend minyan at the synagogue because it's too cold out, or we're too tired from a hard day, or week at work? Why then, are we able to brave the cold and find the energy to leave the house to go the J to work out? Is the reason why we aren't able to allocate money for the purchase of another mezzuah for the house, halachically acceptable tefillin, or a proper contribution to a charitable cause -- because the budget is too tight? Why then, if we look at our checkbook, do we see that we've spent generous amounts of money on vacations, dining out, and other things that clearly may not be amongst the necessities of life?

We often tell ourselves that we have 'reasons'...but what we really have are 'excuses'. Yosef's brothers had their 'excuses' for they way they treated him -- but ultimately, there were only the reasons of needless hatred and refusal to give Yosef the benefit of the doubt.

I'd like to conclude my remarks today by sharing with you a list of 'excuses' someone compiled for not wanting to climb a ladder. They can easily be translated into why more people don't climb the ladder of success, and exert more effort into become better Jews.

1. I'm so clumsy, I might fall 2. The ladder doesn't look very safe. Of course, I'll never know unless I try it, but I don't want to try it because: 3. I'm afraid of heights 4. There's no one to hold the ladder for me when I climb. 5. Everyone else is using the ladder right now, so there's no room for me. 6. The roof doesn't really need fixing anyway.

There are many excuses for not climbing the ladder; but, perhaps, not many good reasons. An honest look at ourselves, and a willingness to ask ourselves a most difficult question -- 'Am I giving myself an excuse, or a reason?' can help us to avoid the mistake that the brothers of Yosef made.