The Path of Repentance

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






Dedicated in memory of Devorah bat Anshel z"l


The Path of Repentance[1]

by Rav Zvi Shimon



             The sin of Joseph's brothers is one of the more serious sins related in the book of Genesis.  Both the Torah (Exodus 21:17, 20:13; see Rashi ibid; Deut. 24:7) and the Prophets (Joel 4, Amos 2:6-10 and many others) equate this sin of selling a free man into bondage with the gravest of sins. The penitence of Joseph's brothers is thus a major theme of the narrative. While the process of penitence involves all the brothers it centers primarily on Reuven and Judah.


             Reuven and Judah were vying for the family leadership, Jacob having effectively ceased playing the leadership role (see for example 34:5, 34:13-14, 35:22, 43:5).  After Shimon and Levi are excluded from the race for leadership, the struggle continues between Reuven and Judah.  It finds expression in their argument over Joseph's fate (37:22,26-27), in the recognition of the sin of his sale (42:22 contra 44:16), in the assumption of responsibility for Benjamin in Egypt (42:37 contra 43:8-9) and in additional verses in the Torah.


             Reuven and Judah were each engaged in a process of penitence for similar sins:  Reuven for having slept with his father's wife, Bilhah, (as appears from the simple textual reading 35:22). and Judah for having slept, albeit unknowingly, with his son's wife (38:16). It would seem clear that their individual repentance is also part of the leadership struggle.  At first glance there seems to be no connection between Reuven's sin with his father's wife and the selling of Joseph.  This, however is misleading.  According to the simple reading of the text, Reuven's intention was to inherit his father's leadership in his lifetime. (compare Absalom who slept with David's concubine, Second book of Samuel 16:22).  His attempt to rescue Joseph and his dreams of royalty (37:20) is part of his repentance for his sin with Bilhah. Reuven acknowledges Joseph's right to be the leader.


             The process of repentance accompanies the brothers wherever they go.  When the Egyptian viceroy commands them to bring Benjamin, the second son of Rachel, the brothers are immediately reminded of the sale of Joseph.  Once again the two contenders - Reuven and Judah - respond in character.  Reuven sees only the punishment for the crime, an d he does not suggest any means of rectification.


                 And Reuven answered them: 'Did I not tell you, do not       sin against the child, and you did not listen; now his          blood is being avenged.' (Gee. 42:22)


             Judah acknowledges his sin and even suggests a positive path of repentance for the evil done.  He is not satisfied with sackcloth and fasting, which are merely expressions of mourning and acceptance of the verdict.


And they tore their clothes ....And Judah said, 'What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak?  Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has revealed the sin of your servants; we have become my lord's slaves' (44:13-17).


And further on,


            Let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my         lord and let the boy go up with his brothers (44:33).


             From Judah's speech it is apparent that he did not confess to stealing the cup.  He considered the whole episode of the stolen goblet as a fabrication.  His words, "God has revealed the sin of your servants," undoubtedly relate to the sin of selling Joseph.


             It would also seem that the struggle between Reuven and Judah regarding the assumption of responsibility for Benjamin in Egypt is connected to their desire to amend the sin of selling Joseph. Reuven's words, "you may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you. Put him in my care and I will return him to you" (42:37) are an attempt to make amends for failing to ensure the safety of Joseph (37:29).  Similarly, Judah's words "If I bring him not to you and set him before you, then I shall have sinned to you forever" (43:9), indicate his understanding of the connection between Joseph's being brought down to Egypt and Benjamin descending to Egypt.  Benjamin's abandonment in Egypt would be a continuation of his grievous sin of selling Joseph.  Otherwise, it is unclear what the sin is and why he should be punished if Benjamin is forcibly taken from him. For Judah, protecting Benjamin at all cost is the atonement demanded for the selling of Joseph, a heaven - sent opportunity to make amends.  In offering their respective propositions, Reuven and Judah remain faithful to their personalities: Reuven through acceptance of the punishment, and Judah through confrontation with the sin itself.


             Our assumption is that Joseph too was plagued by his brother's sin and, consequently, with the future of the house of Israel, no less than with his own fate.  From the time he was sold, he had begun to rebuild not only his own life, but his family's unity.  This unification was not to be forced upon his brothers, but rather achieved by willingness and love.  Joseph desired a unification born of his brother's regretting their sin, a product of wholehearted repentance.


             It is on the basis of this explanation that we can understand Joseph's reaction to his brother's behavior and more specifically Joseph's crying three times.  The first two times are inner, bound by self-restraint.  The third time he breaks down totally and cries, openly and without control.  What is the connection between the different occasions in which Joseph cries? What is unique about the third episode in which Joseph can no longer restrain himself?


A)  First Tears


             The brothers are subjected to an intensive interrogation during three days of imprisonment: "When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them, and spoke harshly to them...You are spies, you have come to see the land" (43:7,9) This induces the brothers to repent for their sin and accept the punishment and suffering, with Reuven in the lead:


"On the third day, Joseph said to them, 'Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man.  If you are honest men, let one of you brothers be held in your place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.'  And they did accordingly.  They said to one another, 'Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us.'  Then Reuven spoke up and said to them, 'Did I not tell you, Do not wrong to the boy?  But you paid no heed, Now comes the reckoning for his blood.'  They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them.  He turned away from them, and wept.  But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Shim'on from among them and had him bound before their eyes."  (Genesis 42:18-24)


             We have previously defined this kind of repentance as "Reuven's repentance," a repentance which involves submission and acceptance of the verdict, but lacks a program for improvement and change. Joseph is prepared to accept his brothers' confession and their submission.  He witnesses the newly reestablished connection of the ten other brothers to the sons of Rachel, and he cries (42:24).  But this is not sufficient for him.  He requires a fuller, deeper repentance.


B)  Second Tears


             Joseph had commands his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt (42:20).  Joseph might have expected that the brothers would return to him empty-handed, placing themselves in danger by explaining to him that they had decided not to endanger Benjamin for the sake of Shim'on and were willing to suffer the shame of hunger.  This is what would have happened, had Jacob had his way.  Thus Joseph was disappointed when it became clear to him that the brothers had brought Benjamin in order to redeem Shim'on, despite the danger to their youngest brother.


"Looking about, he saw his brother Benjamin, his mother's son, and asked, 'Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?'  And he went on, 'May God be gracious to you, my boy.'  With that, Joseph hurriedout, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there."  (Genesis 43:29,30)


             Joseph is unaware of Judah's assumption of responsibility for Benjamin.  His mercy is aroused when he realizes that his younger brother's fate is to be no better than his - Joseph views Benjamin's being brought to Egypt as a reoccurrence of his own sale.  True, in this case it is brought on by hunger and circumstances and is not the outcome of jealousy or hatred.  Nonetheless, this was not the total repentance that was expected in the wake of the confessions he had heard from the brothers and Reuven in Egypt.


             The verse tells us that Joseph feels compassion towards Benjamin, and weeps in private, yet restrains himself in public.  His weeping here is in opposition to the previous weeping, where he felt compassion for his submissive brothers.  Joseph understood that Judah, the man who proposed the sale, had prevailed over Reuven, the man who tried to save him.  This is the only possible explanation of Joseph's crying over Benjamin, his tears being tears of mercy for him and not tears of happiness at the event of their meeting.  Why else, should the exiled, beloved brother, who had spent a third of his life in prison, have pitied his thirty-year old brother, who had remained with his father and raised a large family?


C)  Third Tears

             Joseph decided to test his brothers once more.  This time, however, the test would be more difficult.  He makes his brothers jealous of Benjamin in the same way as they had once been jealous of him.  He displays more outward affection for Benjamin than for them and increases his portion five times : "Portions were served from his Table; but Benjamin's portion was five times that of anyone else" (43:34).  He also attempts to arouse the brothers' hatred towards Benjamin, for having stolen his goblet, an act which re-implicated them for the crime of espionage: "Put my silver Goblet in the mouth of the bag of the youngest one"(44:2).  Joseph's aim is to test their reaction to the prospect of Benjamin's permanent enslavement in Egypt.


             The brothers rent their garments (parallel to Joseph's coat 37:23).  Judah says, "God has found the iniquity of your servants," and then offers himself into permanent slavery as atonement for his lifelong sin towards his father.


"'Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.'  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.  For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.'  Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, 'Have everyone withdraw from me!'  So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharao's palace."  (Genesis 44:32-45:2)


             At this point, Joseph is convinced of their total repentance.  Judah's act combines two kinds of repentance.  The first form of repentance is that required by the early mystics, (foremost, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, author of the book Sefer Rokeach), whereby penance must counterbalance the crime.  Judah, in a torn garment as a permanent slave in Egypt, is in the exact position he had placed Joseph.  Secondly, we have the repentance as defined by the Rambam (Law of Repentance 2:1):


....what is complete repentance?  When a person is confronted with the opportunity to repeat his sin but restrains himself because of repentance, and not because of fear or weakness.


             Here too, deserting Benjamin to lifelong servitude is similar to Joseph's situation in the past.  But Judah now is prepared to give his life to save Benjamin.  Joseph comes to realize his mistake in crying for pity over Benjamin.  He understands that Benjamin's being brought down to Egypt was not the result of the brother's disdain for Benjamin but rather the result of Judah's becoming Benjamin's guarantor.  Judah's repentance, including his attempt to amend the past, is a continuation and completion of Reuven's atonement.  Joseph's weeping for the third time is a continuation of his weeping the first time, when Reuven submitted.  When the repentance is complete Joseph is no longer capable of restraining himself, and he weeps openly.  At this stage the brother's repentance for selling Joseph into slavery is complete and Joseph can reveal himself to them.


[1] (The following was adapted from an article written by Harav Yaakov Medan, which originally appeared in Megadim (vol. 2) a Torah journal published by the Herzog Teachers' College, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion)