Parashat Vayigash tells of the emotional reunion between Yaakov and his beloved son, Yosef, after over twenty years of separation. The Torah relates that Yosef wept for a long time on Yaakov’s shoulder when the two finally met (46:29), and Targum Yonatan ben Uziel presents a fascinating explanation for Yosef’s tears. Targum Yonatan writes that when Yosef went out to greet his father, Yaakov saw him from afar and bowed to him. It appears that Yaakov mistook Yosef for Pharaoh, as he was dressed in royal garb, and thus prostrated before him. When they reached one another, Yosef wept, lamenting having caused his father to bow to him, an act of disrespect towards Yaakov. Targum Yonatan further notes that Yosef was punished for causing his father to bow to him, and a number of years were taken off his life.
This Midrashic account of Yaakov and Yosef’s reunion, and the criticism of Yosef for what was, apparently, an innocent mistake, is perhaps intended to warn against giving false impressions and appearing greater than our true selves. Symbolically, Yosef’s appearing as Pharaoh might represent the common phenomenon of people projecting an exaggerated image of stature and importance. Chazal criticize Yosef for his having mistakenly caused his father to show him honor which he did not deserve, perhaps warning that we should ensure to not even inadvertently present ourselves as somebody who we aren’t. Yosef certainly deserved respect and honor by virtue of his position of vizier, but he did not deserve the level of respect that was reserved only for Pharaoh. Likewise, while we all deserve basic human dignity, as well as some degree of respect and recognition for our qualities and achievements, we must ensure not to project a false image and invite honor and accolades of which we are not worthy.
The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (72b) famously teaches that a Torah scholar must be “tokho ke-varo” – the same inside and out. Just as the aron in the Beit Ha-mikdash was plated with gold on both its interior and exterior (Shemot 25:11), the Gemara instructs, people who project the noble image of a serious student of Torah must ensure that this image is an accurate reflection of their true selves, and that the respect they receive for their presumed stature is truly deserved.