“Joseph Helps His Brothers Repent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Maimonides, the great Jewish codifier and philosopher (1135 – 1204) writes at the beginning of the second chapter of the Laws of T’shuvah (Repentance): “What is considered full repentance? One who is confronted with a situation in which he had previously transgressed, and can transgress again, but nevertheless refrains, neither because of fear or inability– that is T’shuvah, that is true repentance.” Maimonides proceeds to give an example of a person who had prohibited relations with a woman and is once again in the same position, indeed he still loves her and still has the physical strength to commit the transgression, and yet refrains. This is what Maimonides calls a “Ba’al t’shuvah g’mura,” a full and true penitent.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and reconciles with them. The Torah tells us, in Genesis 45:1-3: “Ve’lo ya’chol Yosef le’hit’apek…,” And Joseph could not control himself… and began to weep loudly. His cry was heard throughout all of Egypt, even to the house of Pharaoh. Joseph says to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers were not able to answer him because of their shock.

What a dramatic moment. For twenty-two years, Joseph was estranged from his family. For twenty-two years, he failed to contact his grieving father. For twenty-two years, he had contained his unbridled resentment against his brothers, and now in one decisive instant, he cries out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

Why did Joseph have to be so cruel? Couldn’t Joseph have revealed himself to his brothers earlier? Had they not already bowed down to him and fulfilled the vision of his dreams?

Perhaps Joseph thought that the dreams had not yet been completely fulfilled, and would not be completely fulfilled unless Benjamin came to Egypt to bow down to him. Pressuring the family was the only way to force the family to allow Benjamin to come to Egypt. Once Benjamin was in Egypt, Joseph was certain that Jacob would also come down and complete the vision of the second dream.

But there was yet another reason for prolonging the drama. The brothers’ agony was also necessary in order for Joseph to test them, to see whether they were truly Ba’alei T’shuvah — truly penitent. And the only way to test a Ba’al T’shuvah is to place the subject in the exact situation where he had sinned before, to see if he will succumb or is capable of resisting. Judah’s dramatic statement to Joseph informing him how closely bonded Benjamin is to old Jacob and that Jacob would die, certainly tugs at Joseph’s heart strings. But even more, Judah’s selfless offer (Genesis 44:33): “Ve’at’ah yay’shev nah av’d’chah ta’chat ha’na’ar ev’ed la’doh’nee,” Now therefore, please, let me [Judah] your servant remain as a slave to my lord, instead of the boy [Benjamin] and let the boy go up with his brothers– testifies that the brothers had undergone a significant transformation.

After all, looking at the situation objectively, Judah and his brothers have every reason to believe that Benjamin is as incorrigible as his missing brother Joseph. They have every reason to believe that Benjamin actually stole the goblet, with which Joseph divines. Could it be that this son of Rachel, who stole her father Leban’s fetishes, also has a genetic flaw, just like his hated brother Joseph?

And so the brothers of Joseph and Benjamin are faced with the ultimate test. Will they forsake Benjamin, as they had abandoned Joseph?

In order to determine the answer, Joseph had to subject his brothers to this great agony and the test. Thank G-d, the brothers rise to the occasion. They are faced with, as Maimonides said, the exact situation, but, this time they do not succumb. In fact, they are prepared to totally sacrifice themselves, and are willing to give their very lives and their freedom for their brother, Benjamin.

There’s one more part of the psychological puzzle that needs to be filled in. In a recently published book entitled, “Around the Shabbat Table” by Aryeh ben David, the author suggests that had Joseph revealed himself soon after the brothers arrived in Egypt, they would never have been able to forgive themselves for their perfidious and dastardly actions against Joseph. Only now, only after they put their lives on the line to protect Benjamin, would they be able to proudly proclaim with a clear conscience, “We are truly Ba’alei T’shuvah. Yes, we erred, we sinned, but we are sinners no more.”

The Talmud, in Tractate Yoma 86b declares, “One who is truly penitent, is as if he never sinned.” Reish Lakish goes even further and says, “Great is T’shuvah for it actually transforms one’s sins into merits”.

So we see, the agony to which Joseph subjected his brothers, was actually his way of helping his brothers achieve full and sincere repentance.

May you be blessed.