Forgiving Shimon

November 28, 2021

5 min read


Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

Bereishis, 42:24: “And he turned away from them and he wept; he returned to them and he spoke to them; he took Shimon from them and imprisoned him before their eyes.”
Rashi, 42:24: Sv. Before their eyes: He only imprisoned him before their eyes, but once they left, he took him out, fed him and gave him drink.

When the brothers came to Egypt, Yosef immediately recognized them and decided not to reveal himself, rather he pretended to suspect them of being spies. 1 As part of his plan, he arrested one of the brothers, Shimon. The Sages point out that of all the brothers, Shimon and Levi were the main instigators of the plot to kill Yosef, indeed Rashi states that Shimon was the one who initiated the plan to kill Yosef and then later Shimon was the one who pushed him into the pit. Yosef now imprisoned Shimon and released the other brothers. A number of reasons are given for why Yosef imprisoned Shimon in particular 2, but it is very clear that he had no base motives of revenge. This is proven by the fact that as soon as the brothers left, Yosef released Shimon from his jail and even provided for him. The Midrash goes even further – it implies that Yosef himself personally looked after Shimon, giving him food and drink, washing and anointing him. 3 Why did Yosef go this far – was it not enough that Yosef released him from jail – why did he attend to his material comforts and act as his valet?! 4

The answer can be found in the teachings of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter: He taught that when someone suffers insult or injury and is asked for forgiveness, it is not enough to merely forgive him, rather he should go so far as to do kindness to the offender because in order to restore good feelings between the two, requires repaying a bad deed with a good deed. 5

Rabbi Yisrael offers suggests two reasons for recommending this course of action. Firstly, it is a fulfillment of the Mitzva of emulating God’s character traits. We see that God is constantly repaying sinners’ disloyalty with benevolence in that even after the sin and before repentance, the person continues to live and enjoy life. We know that God constantly renews the world so that every moment He is performing a new act of kindness to all His Creations. Therefore, the continued existence of a sinner is testimony that God performs innumerable acts of kindness to him, despite his sinful behavior. Similarly, a person should strive to emulate God and perform acts of kindness with someone who wronged him, and this applies even if the person has not asked for forgiveness.

A second reason for reacting to a sinner with kindness is that mere thoughts or words of forgiveness are insufficient to uproot the negative feelings that a person has towards a sinner. This is based on a halachic (legal) principle that ‘a deed can reverse a thought, but a thought cannot reverse a thought’. 6 Accordingly, in order to fully banish negative feelings to a person, it is necessary to actively help them. Yosef had every right to have hard feelings towards Shimon – to ensure that these feelings against Shimon were completely eradicated, he went to so far as serving Shimon to an extreme degree.

Rabbi Yisrael himself was famous for benevolence to people who had wronged him: Once while traveling by train, a man, not recognizing Rabbi Yisrael, terribly insulted him. When the man realized Rabbi Yisrael’s identity, he begged for forgiveness. Having received it, he then said he’d come to receive a certificate to become a shochet (ritual slaughterer). Without being asked, Rabbi Yisrael helped him to get tutors so he could pass the exam. He then went out of his way to find him a job. Rabbi Yisrael thus applied this trait of not only forgiving one who wronged him, but by actively helping him!

Of course, it is not easy to forgive someone who caused us pain, but we learn from Yosef, that the correct response is to forgive him and even do kindness towards him. It is important to add, that doing so also benefits the victim himself in that it enables him to achieve closure by treating the perpetrator like anyone else deserving of kindness. May we merit to emulate Yosef in the way that we treat those who wrong us.

  1. The commentaries discuss why Yosef acted this way, but it is not the subject of this article.
  2. Rashi explains that he wanted to separate Shimon and Levi because he knew how dangerous that combination could be from the incident with Shechem many years earlier. Others suggest that he wanted the brothers to realize that what was happening was a measure for measure, punishment for the sale of Yosef – therefore he imprisoned Shimon because he was the main instigator of the plot to kill Yosef. Ibn Ezra says that the logical hostage would be the first-born, Reuven, but Yosef spared Reuven in gratitude for his having been the one who tried to protect him when the brothers were planning to kill him. Therefore, he took the next oldest brother, Shimon.
  3. Bereishis Rabbah, 91:8.
  4. See Artscroll, Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Bereishis, Vayeishev-Vayechi, p.14 for this question and answer.
  5. Ohr Yisrael, p.115. Even though it is not apparent that Shimon asked Yosef for forgiveness, Yosef had just overheard all the brothers acknowledging that they were cruel in their treatment of their brother. A possible alternative explanation is perhaps that Yosef was on such a high level that he treated Shimon so well even though he had not asked for forgiveness.
  6. Kiddushin, 59b.
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