The Torah in Parashat Miketz tells of the experiences of Yosef’s brothers after they came to Egypt to purchase grain, a process which brought them to Yosef, whom they did not recognize, as he was now the Egyptian vizier. Yosef accused them of coming as spies, and forced them to bring their youngest brother, Binyamin, who had remained in Canaan. He took Shimon prisoner and then sent the others back to bring Binyamin. When the brothers returned with Binyamin, to their astonishment, they were brought to Yosef’s home and dined with him. The Torah tells, “Va-yishtu va-yishkeru imo” – “They drank and became intoxicated with him” (43:34).
Rashi, citing the Gemara (Shabbat 139a), comments that this was the first occasion when Yosef and his brothers drank wine since he was sold as a slave. Ever since that tragic incident, both Yosef and his brothers made a point of abstaining from wine, denying themselves the joy and gratification brought by intoxication. Now, however, when they were all finally reunited, they allowed themselves to drink.
The question naturally arises as to why the brothers drank on this occasion. Yosef, understandably, drank because he was finally reunited with his brothers, but the brothers, who at this point still did not know that the vizier was Yosef, had no reason to celebrate or to end their period of abstinence from wine. Why, then, did they drink?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah, suggests that the brothers had no choice but to drink wine because of the company they were in. They were hosts of the vizier who was jovial and festive, and so they, too, out of courtesy, needed to act in a similar fashion. Of course, under the circumstances, they did not feel any joy. While they certainly felt some degree of relief seeing Shimon out of jail and being reassured they would not be accused of theft despite their money having been returned to their bags, they still had to be anxious and concerned. Their families were starving in Canaan during a drought which had shown no signs of ending, they still needed to travel home from Egypt, and they were at the mercy of the whims of a ruler who had proven to be insensible, unpredictable and cruel. They also knew that somebody had tampered with their luggage during their previous trip in an apparent framing attempt, and this could easily happen again. They were, undoubtedly, anxious and uneasy, but had no choice but to act as though they joyful and content, like their host. And so they drank wine in order to lift their spirits so they could at least outwardly act joyfully, even though this is not at all how they felt.
The lesson that perhaps emerges from Rav Sorotzkin’s reading of the Gemara’s comment is that we are able, and should strive, to present a positive, upbeat image even in times of anxiety and distress. While this of course is not always possible, we should endeavor not to wear our troubles on our faces, and to be upbeat out of consideration for the people around us. The Gemara, according to Rav Sorotzkin’s reading, teaches us that the brothers suspended their vow of abstinence from wine in order to put themselves in a jovial mood out of respect for their host. We, too, should try, when possible, to exude positivity and warmth even when we feel uptight or upset.