During the discussion/confrontation between Yosef and his brothers, Yehudah referred to his father as “your servant” five times, understandable since he was talking to the Viceroy of Egypt, and deference is necessary when speaking to authority. However, unbeknownst to Yehudah, his father was also the Viceroy’s father, so by calling his father the Viceroy’s servant, he was also saying that the Viceroy’s own father was his servant, which was inappropriate for Yosef to hear and not protest. Therefore, he either lost ten years of his life (Pirkay d’Rebbe Eliezer 39), only had two children instead of twelve (Hadar Z’kaynim on 44:31), and/or was referred to as a corpse during his lifetime (Soteh 13b).
One discussion that takes place among the commentaries is why the number 10 is significant in Yosef’s punishment (at least according to the first two approaches) if Yehudah referred to his father as Yosef’s servant five times (B’reishis 43:28, 44:24, 44:27, 44:30 and 44:31), not ten. The standard answer (see the commentaries on Pirkay d’Rebbe Eliezer) is that since there was a translator who repeated, in Egyptian, what Yehudah had said in Hebrew, Yosef actually heard his father being referred to as his servant ten times (five times in Hebrew and five times in Egyptian). [It should be noted that Yehudah referred to his father more than five times, but only referred to him as the Viceroy’s servant five times. Apparently, Yehudah only felt it necessary to do so when his father was the primary focus of what he was saying, and only the first time he is referred to in the clause (see 44:24 and 44:25). For example, when reiterating that he had previously told the Viceroy that it was dangerous for his youngest brother to leave his father’s side (44:22), since the focus was on Binyamin, Yehudah did not refer to his father as “your servant.”] The bottom line is that Yosef seems to have been punished for not protesting his father being called his servant.
Whatever reason Yosef had for putting his brothers, and father, through such an extended ordeal even after he became Viceroy and could have sent word that he was alive and well and now part of the Egyptian royalty (see page 2 of http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5767/miketz.pdf; Rabbi Moshe Shamah suggests that Yosef had to first bring his brothers to the point of accepting their father choosing Rachel’s children over Leah’s children in order for there to be any chance of family unity), not allowing his father to be referred to as “your servant” would have blown his cover. Why was Yosef punished if he had to play along as if Yaakov was not his father in order to accomplish what needed to be accomplished? (I am assuming that Yosef was justified in concealing his true identity for as long as he did; if he wasn’t, the consequences for making his father, and innocent younger brother, suffer should have been highlighted, not just his lack of protesting his father being referred to as his servant.)
If the interpreter knew who the Viceroy was, it could be suggested that Yosef was punished for not telling him to avoid using the words “your servant” in the translation; not doing so reflecting on all ten times that Yaakov was referred to as his servant, not just those said in Egyptian. However, it is doubtful that Yosef would risk having his true identity discovered by telling the interpreter (even if it was his son Menashe, see Rashi on 42:23) that these were his brothers. After all, just a momentary change of facial expression could give things away. Even though after the first time Yehudah called his father “your servant” Yosef had an opportunity (after his brothers left, before the goblet was discovered) to instruct the interpreter not to include those words in his translation, doing so might raise some suspicion about Yosef’s identity–not only by the interpreter, but by his astute brothers, who might pick up on the change in the translation (even if they didn’t know the meaning of the actual words).
Although the Talmud (Soteh 13b) does not connect Yosef dying early with his not protesting against his father being called his servant, the punishment it does attribute to his not protesting (being referred to as a corpse while still alive) is immediately followed by the reason Yosef died before his brothers did (even though almost all of them were older than him): because he acted like a leader. Although Maharsha (B’rachos 55a) wonders why the punishment normally associated with acting like a leader (which often entails misusing authority) was applied to Yosef (since we can assume that Yosef did not misuse his authority), it would seem that rather than being a punishment, having a shorter life is a natural consequence of having to deal with leadership issues (see Rashi on Bamidbar 11:28). If so, it would seem that the Talmud is listing two things that affected Yosef as natural consequences of his actions; he was adversely affected by hearing his father being referred to as his servant (referring to himself as a corpse, indicating that remaining silent weighed heavily upon him for the rest of his life) and by being in a leadership position. Since the reward for honoring parents is long life (see Sh’mos 20:12, see also the Bayis Gadol Biur Maspik commentary on Pirkay d’Rebbe Eliezer 39), doing something that runs counters to it results in having a shorter life (or worrying about living a shorter one, or having fewer children to be honored by).
That we are held responsible for not fully honoring our parents even when we can’t be expected to is evident from elsewhere in the Talmud as well (Kidushin 31b, see Rashi d”h ashray), although that statement may refer to the fact that we can’t be expected to be perfect yet are held responsible for those moments when we aren’t. Nevertheless, all mitzvos have intrinsic value, independent of the “reward and punishment” aspect that G-d put in place in order to motivate us even before we are prepared to follow the Torah because of its inherent advantages, or ready to follow G-d’s will just because it is G-d’s will. We can’t expect to benefit from the inherent value of a mitzvah we didn’t fulfill, even when there was a valid reason why we couldn’t fulfill it. Should we somehow attain the knowledge we would have gained from attending a shiur (lecture) that we didn’t attend if we didn’t attend it in order to take care of something that takes precedence? If nothing else, suffering the secondary consequences of doing something that we had to (or not doing something that we couldn’t do) provides substantial motivation to minimize any collateral damage from occurring when trying to accomplish something.
At its most basic level, honoring parents brings long life because the example it sets impacts the next generation, who will, in turn, honor their parents, taking care of them when they need it, thereby extending their parents’ lives. Even if Yosef couldn’t protest when Yehudah referred to his father as his servant, the very fact that he didn’t had negative consequences, even if it wasn’t a “punishment” per se.
This coming week (6 Teves), with G-d’s help, my parents will be celebrating their 50th anniversary. My paternal grandmother passed away shortly before I was born, and my paternal grandfather passed away when I was quite young. However, I was able to see the mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) of my parents, especially my mother, when she took care of her parents. May G-d bless them with long life, and many more happy years together.