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Joseph's Brothers and the Art of Repentance

Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )


It starts with taking responsibility for your own actions.

In this week's parashah we read the dramatic story of Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, meeting his brethren after 22 years of separation. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, and when he accuses them of espionage they are overcome with trepidation. They immediately attribute their troubles to the heinous sin that they committed so long ago, when they sold Joseph into slavery.

In voices full of torment, they cry out, "Aval – 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."1 The brothers could, of course, have ascribed Joseph's accusation to the whim of a mad Egyptian despot, but herein lies their greatness. Instead of shifting blame, they searched their souls and looked within themselves for the cause of their misfortune.

We can appreciate the depth of their self-scrutiny through an examination of the Hebrew word aval (indeed) which has a double meaning. It can also be translated but. At first glance, these disparate words appear contradictory. The Torah, however, is teaching us a profound lesson. Most people, when explaining themselves, prefer to use the word aval as "but" in order to justify their negative behavior. They readily concede that their conduct was incorrect, but then go on to say, "But, there were mitigating circumstances beyond my control ...," "I know that I was wrong, but I was provoked ...," "I probably shouldn't have said that, but she/he pushed my buttons ...," etc., etc. Thus, with that little but, they give themselves license to continue to follow the same ill-advised path.

The brothers, the Tribal Patriarchs of the Jewish people, teach us how to repent, to do teshuvah. They teach us how to shed our bad habits, improve our character traits, and rediscover our true essence. They use the word aval – not as "but" (a loophole) – but rather as indeed, acknowledging, "Yes, indeed, we have sinned, we are accountable." Thus they display the path of teshuvah for all generations.

On Yom Kippur, when we recite Vidui (Confession), we repeat these very words: "Aval anachnu va'avoseinu chatanu ... Indeed, we and our fathers/ancestors have sinned" – no ifs, ands or buts! On the other hand, when people say, "I know I did such and such, but -," qualifying their confessions with that little insidious but attempts to justify continuing to follow the same corrupt path and cancels out their teshuvah.

That which we choose to forget, God will remember, but that which we choose to remember and do teshuvah on, God will not only forget, but He will cancel the evil decree – the painful consequences of our sin – and convert the transgression into merit. "If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow ...."2

Most of us are good and decent people. It is the excuses that we make with but that allow us to stray from the path. We have a choice: We can emulate the Tribal Patriarchs by saying "Indeed," and grow, change, and realize our potential, or we can indulge ourselves with "but" and sink into our weaknesses. It all depends on us.

There is yet another lesson that we can learn from the brothers' confession. To all intents and purposes, the sin of which this apparent Egyptian despot is accusing them has no connection to the family squabble that took place 22 years previously in Canaan. And yet the brothers see a direct link between the tragedy that is now befalling them and the events that occurred so long ago. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and there is no forgetfulness before God. If we choose to ignore the transgressions of our past, if we fail to do teshuvah and ask forgiveness for them, then Hashem will find ways to remind us. God's time is different from ours, Eventually all our transgression will catch up with us in the most unexpected way. Time and again we see the law of middah k'neged middah (measure for measure), which, in our contemporary world, is often referred to as "what goes around comes around."

  1. Genesis 42:21.
  2. Isaiah 1:18.

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