I TOLD YOU SO
by Rabbi Alexander
As we encounter Joseph's brothers in this week's Torah portion, we find them suffering through a very difficult series of events. They came to Egypt on a mission to buy food for their hungry families in the land of Israel.
As we encounter Joseph's brothers in this week's Torah portion, we find them suffering through a very difficult series of events. They came to Egypt on a mission to buy food for their hungry families in the land of Israel. Suddenly, the Egyptian viceroy (unbeknownst to them, their own long-lost brother Joseph) has gotten it into his head that they are spies seeking to destroy Egypt, and the more they try to talk him out of his fixation, the more he stubbornly sticks to his claim. They have all just spent three days in jail, and now the tyrannical ruler has informed them that one of them is to be held hostage until the rest return with their youngest brother Benjamin. Finally, they start thinking back to their poor treatment of Joseph years ago: "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us" (Genesis 42:21).
This sounds like such a serious expression of teshuvah, regret for a past wrongdoing! Common courtesy would require anyone listening to show some sympathy for these people who have demonstrated sincere regret for their past actions. Certainly the last thing anyone would want to do would be to jump in with an "I told you so" or "see, I was right" attitude. Yet remarkably, looking at the very next verse, we find Reuben, the oldest brother, apparently doing just that: "Did I not speak to you saying, 'Do not sin against the boy,' but you would not listen! Now, too, [the responsibility for] his death is being demanded from us" (ibid. 42:23). Is this what the brothers need to hear - what a "goody-goody" Reuben was more than twenty years before?
Our sages describe Reuben as the prototype of someone who truly did teshuvah. Since the brothers were finally, after so many long years, taking their first steps towards teshuvah for the sale of Joseph, Reuben felt it necessary to guide them to a more complete teshuvah. His few, seemingly shocking, words contain a complete program, in two steps, for them to follow:
"Remember what a serious sin this was." A person can be moved to teshuvah by many different causes; in the case of Joseph's brothers, the problems they were having with the Egyptian viceroy forced them to focus on improving their deeds. But what will happen when they are safely back home, hundreds of miles away from their troubles in Egypt? Will they still feel as sincerely regretful over selling Joseph? We all know people - ourselves included - who rediscover Hashem in times of distress, only to forget Him as soon as the crisis has passed. Reuben is telling his brothers not to just start doing teshuvah as a bargaining chip so that Hashem should get you out of this mess; do teshuvah for its own sake, because you realize what a terrible mistake you made. Do teshuvah even if there is no crisis in your life. Do teshuvah to the extent that, in the words of Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, "The Knower of Secrets [Hashem] can vouch for the fact" that you will never repeat this sin again, even when the memory of this episode has long since faded (Laws of Teshuvah 2:2). Reuben tells them that it is certainly true that we now face serious consequences because of our sin - "the responsibility for his death is being demanded from us" (ibid.). But that's only a side issue; that shouldn't be the sole catalyst for our teshuvah.
"Remember that you, and only you, were at fault." Anytime a crime takes place, you can be sure that the media will come up with all kinds of "extenuating factors" to shift the blame away from the criminal. It's not his fault, we are told - it's the fault of his abusive parents, or his insanity, or racism, or the CIA, or anyone and anything other than the fellow who actually pulled the trigger. One of the most serious problems with this mindset is that it makes it completely impossible for the criminal to feel genuinely sorry for his actions; how can he when his lawyers are busy digging up "evidence" to show that the victim was "asking for it"? Only when a person accepts full and unconditional responsibility for his actions is teshuvah possible. So Reuben quickly strips away any possible lingering excuses that his brothers might have had. They knew at the time that it was a sin, as he told them, "Do not sin against the boy" (ibid.), and they didn't listen. They, and no one else, are responsible for what they did! With that defense shattered, the brothers are finally ready to "face the music" and start on their teshuvah in a manner that will make it last.
To pursue this second point further, we find in the Yom Kippur services, among the dozens of confessions for various sins, "[Forgive us for] the sins that we committed with the yetzer hara (evil inclination)." The obvious question: Are there any sins we commit without the yetzer hara? But what we are saying in this line is: "I often blame my misdeeds on the fact that I have very powerful drives that work overtime to lead me down the wrong path. But now I realize that this is a copout of sorts - a subtle way of avoiding responsibility for my actions - and that the real problem here is that my will is flabby; I could overcome these temptations if I really wanted to. So now I resolve to strengthen my resolve and not to allow myself to be goaded by my desires." Or, to put it in more familiar terms, this line reaffirms the adage that "where there's a will, there's a way." And when we start exercising our "will" muscles and taking responsibility for our actions, we may even be able, like the Maccabees in the Chanukah story, to defeat the overwhelming opposing forces - physical or mental - that threaten our commitment to following Hashem's commands, and to rediscover the "pure container of oil" of devotion to serving Hashem, that lies at the core of every Jewish soul.
This essay is adapted from a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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