“Joseph Helps His Brothers Repent”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Maimonides writes, at the beginning of the second chapter of the Laws of Teshuvah (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 תְּשוּבָה –Teshuvah, 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 בַּעַל תְּשוּבָה גְמוּרָה , 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 45:1-2: …וְלֹא יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק , 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, Genesis 45:3: אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, “I am Joseph!,” ?הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי   “Is my father still alive? ”But, his brothers were unable 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 moment, 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 and Jacob came to Egypt to bow down to him. Pressuring the family was the only way to force them 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 Baalei Teshuvah—fully penitent. And, the only way to test a Ba’al Teshuvah 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 heartstrings. But, even more, Judah’s selfless offer: (Genesis 44:33), וְעַתָּה, יֵשֶׁב נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי, “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 haughty older 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 great agony. Thank G-d, the brothers rise to the occasion and pass the test. 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 up 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 book entitled, “Around the Shabbat Table” by Rabbi 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 Baalei 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.” Resh 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.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Friday, December 25, 2020, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.