A Time For Humility And A Time For Assertiveness
In Parshah Mikeitz, Yosef’s brothers vigorously deny his accusation that they are spies and insist: “We are all sons of one man; we are truthful people; your servants have never been spies.” [Bereshith 42:11]
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch has two interesting observations on this passuk [verse].
First Rav Hirsch notes that we have seen throughout history that as strong as family bonds may be, when times of panic arrive, these ties often give way to an “every man for himself” attitude. When it comes to a question of “my survival or your survival,” family connections have a way of breaking down very rapidly.
There was a famine. People were lining up for food. They did not know if the food supply would run out or not. Most people under such circumstances would be tempted to try to push ahead in front of the line.
However, the sons of Yaakov stood together as a group. “We are all the sons of one man” in good times or in bad times. We are either all going to get food or none of us will get food.
The second insight that Rav Hirsch makes is classic Hirschian exegesis.
The way the brothers stated that they were all the sons of one man by saying, “Kulanu bnei ish echad NACHNU.” NACHNU [we / us] is an abbreviated version of the word ANACHNU. In fact, this very word ANACHNU is used in the next phrase of the passuk: “keinim ANACHNU” (WE are truthful people). Rav Hirsch asks why the passuk is inconsistent in the use of this first person plural pronoun. Why is it stated as NACHNU one time and then as ANACHNU just two words later?
Rav Hirsch explains that the two words have different connotations.
NACHNU is a much more modest form of the word for “we” than is ANACHNU. When one does not wish to assert himself and wishes to show modesty, he does not use the full word ANACHNU, but rather the more subtle and diminished form, NACHNU.
Rav Hirsch elaborates: When demonstrating their distinguished genealogy (yichus), they were modest – kulanu bnei ish echad NACHNU. But when their integrity was being impugned, then the occasion called for putting aside all modesty and forcefully denying the charge. Therefore, they aggressively used the word ANACHNU and stood up proudly for who they were: WE are truthful people.
The same people, who in the previous breath were modest and humble in presenting their lineage, were forceful and unapologetic in stating whom they were: keinim ANACHNU.