The Teshuva of Yaacov
It came to pass at the end of two years that Pharaoh dreamt, and he saw himself standing on the banks of the Nile…
So begins Parashat Miketz, with the continuation of Sefer Bereishit's most enduring story, the narratives of Yosef. The saga of Yosef is the most lengthy in the book, and reveals to us much concerning the human condition and the role of God in our lives. Consumed with an immature arrogance, consequently despised by his brothers, Yosef is catapulted by their rage into an exile that transforms him. When he finally reveals himself to them in next week's Parasha, he is no longer the boasting youth who reveled in his personal dreams of grandeur, but rather the chastened and mature man of God who wisely recognizes in his rise to fortune the future salvation of his family.
As for his brothers, we made their unsettling acquaintance in Parashat VaYeshev as they gleefully prepared to dispatch their brother, and then went on to conceal the crime from all. By the time the final events of the tale are played out, they too have expressed among themselves genuine remorse and regret. They go on to then concretize that newfound commitment by refusing to allow the tyrannical Viceroy to seize and to imprison beloved Binyamin, even at the cost of their own freedom.
THE TESHUVA OF YOSEF AND HIS BROTHERS
In the broadest possible terms, then, the story of Yosef and his brothers is the story of true Teshuva, where that term refers not to verbal pronouncements of ritualized resolutions, but life-transforming thoughts and acts that repair broken lives, mend tattered relationships, and restore us to God's compassionate presence.
It seems, however, that in order for that Teshuva to be accomplished, every participant in the account must undergo some sort of painful process of self-realization that is triggered by harsh external factors of the most sudden and inexplicable kind. Thus Yosef's proud and pleasant dreams are in an instant shattered as he is cast into the dark pit, sold into slavery, and finally exiled to a far-off land. Similarly, the brothers' complacency is confounded by the famine that forces them down to Egypt where they must unexpectedly face the absurd charge of espionage. Returning to Canaan, they must then confront their old and broken father with the terrible news of the Viceroy's demands. Might the Torah not be indicating that this is the way of Teshuva, to have the foresight and fortitude to utilize life's often inexplicable trials to somehow find our way back to God and to our true selves?
There is, of course, another participant in the account, one who is often overlooked as the events of the narrative so breathlessly unfold. Though we see his anguish and feel his hurt, we tend to underappreciate its magnitude by exclusively viewing it through the prism of Yosef and his brothers, rather than in its own rite. I refer of course, to Ya'acov himself, the other central figure in these parashiyot, whose life appears to us as the muted background against which the drama is played out.
THE ROLE OF YA'ACOV IN THE UNFOLDING SAGA
Let us recall, though, that Ya'acov is absolutely indispensable to the account. It is precisely because of his inappropriate but not mistaken favoritism that Yosef is so despised in his brothers' sight. The 'coat of many colors', the hated symbol of Yosef's innate talents and his father's unbounded love, was, after all, a gift from Ya'acov, and the impetus that drove the brothers to kill. Doesn't the text underline his involvement by declaring that "Yisrael loved Yosef more than all of the other brothers, for he was the child of his old age. He made for him a coat of many colors" (37:3)? When Yosef eventually chances upon them near Shechem, sent to meet them by Ya'acov himself (!), they tear the coat from him and cast him into the pit. Hoping to rid themselves of his noxious dreams forever, the brothers sell Yosef to the Yishma'elites, but they cannot rest until they have executed vengeance upon that mantle! Ritually dipping the coat in the blood of the goat, the brothers then present it to their aged father as proof of Yosef's demise, a satisfying conclusion indeed to its hated history, but scarcely can they imagine the torrent of sorrow that its tatters will unleash.
Again in this week's Parasha, it is Ya'acov who is responsible for driving the inexorable process forward. As famine strikes the Canaanite countryside, and its painful pangs begin to be felt, Ya'acov sends his children down to Egypt to secure grain (42:1-4). The text highlights his role in the matter quite strikingly:
YA'ACOV saw that there was sustenance in Egypt, so YA'ACOV said to his children: 'why do you look at yourselves? Behold, I have heard that there is sustenance in Egypt, do down to there and secure it for us, so that we might live and not die. Yosef's ten brothers went down to purchase grain from Egypt…
Thus, it is Ya'acov who first suggests a descent to Egypt, it is he who sends the ten brothers on their way, and it is therefore his decision that inadvertently leads to their unexpected delivery into the Viceroy's vengeful clutches.
YA'ACOV'S CONTINUING ROLE
Soon, the brothers find themselves incarcerated. After three days of surreal terror, they are released and sent on their way, but Shimon is taken as hostage. The Viceroy demands a steep price for his discharge: that beloved Benyamin be presented before him, ostensibly to substantiate the brothers' claims of innocence. Returning to Canaan, the brothers must now face the raging grief of their father, who initially refuses to send Binyamin with them. Only after the continuing famine forces his hand, does Ya'acov bow to his son Yehuda's entreaties, and agree to allow Binyamin to accompany the brothers to Egypt under his aegis. Thus, once again, it is Ya'acov who provides the indispensable key for the story's relentless progress, even providing his sons with a symbolic gift for the tyrant (43:11) in order to secure his favor.
Of course, while the story will only reach its climax in next week's Parasha with the unmasking of Yosef, we the readers already know the outcome. When Binyamin will stand accused of stealing the Viceroy's silver goblet, Yehuda will plead on his behalf. Again, he will invoke the grief of his aged father Ya'acov to drive home his argument for Binyamin's release, but unwittingly he will return us in the process to the story's unhappy beginnings:
…your servant our father said to us: "you surely know that my wife gave birth to two children. One of them has gone from me, and I have said that he is surely torn to pieces by beasts. I have not seen him since! If you take this one also from before me and tragedy befalls him, then you will surely cause my old age to be brought with grief to the grave!" (44:27-29).
The Viceroy can bear the tension no longer, and in a cathartic release, reveals his identity, but again we note that the matter unfolds in response to the reports of Ya'acov's grief. Thus, it seems that Ya'acov's presence, or at least the reports of it, is once more imperative for the story's conclusion.
THE RESOLUTION OF THE STORY AND ITS INHERENT SYMMETRY
In the end, all is resolved. Yosef bears his brothers no ill will, they are tearfully reconciled, and he quickly sends them to fetch his old father and their households. While initially incredulous of their reports of Yosef's survival and triumph, Ya'acov eventually accepts his sons' fantastic tale and accompanies them down to Egypt, there to finally effect a tearful reunion with his beloved child:
Yosef hitched his chariot and went to meet his father Yisrael at Goshen. When he appeared before him, he fell upon his neck and cried upon his neck exceedingly. Yisrael said to Yosef: "now I can surely die, after I have seen your face, for you are still alive!" (46:29-30).
In a fitting conclusion to the entire sage, Ya'acov lives out his remaining seventeen years of life under Yosef's watchful gaze, meriting to see his son's great glory, his grandchildren's rise to prominence, and even the birth of his great grandchildren. Though he will die on foreign soil, with God's blessing to his children upon his lips, his loyal son will return his mortal remains to Canaan, to be finally reunited with the his ancestors and their legacy. Buried at Machpela, his place in Jewish history secure, Ya'acov finally achieves peace.
If we begin to consider the structure of the story from the perspective of Ya'acov, we are struck by its astonishing symmetry. It is Ya'acov who favors Yosef initially and thus brings down the brothers' rage upon them all. But it also Ya'acov who dispatches the brothers to Egypt, there to inadvertently trigger the arduous process of reconciliation. It is Ya'acov who unleashes the process of Yosef's descent to Egyptian exile. But it also Ya'acov who sends his ten sons down to the banks of the Nile to not only secure grain, but to unknowingly fetch Yosef and to eventually restore him to his land. It is Ya'acov who is directly responsible for the most painful wrenching of Yosef from his loving arms, but it is also Ya'acov who, without realizing it, initiates Yosef's ultimate return to his embrace.
THE TESHUVA OF YA'ACOV
If we speak about a Teshuva of Yosef and a Teshuva of his brothers, then we must also speak about a Teshuva of Ya'acov, for we now realize that his deeds demarcate the deeds of them all. The early sources already allude to the theme of Teshuva animating the acts of Ya'acov and dynamically driving the narrative forward:
"He made for him a coat of many colors" – Said Resh Lakish in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah: A parent must not show favor to one child over the others, for on account of the coat of many colors that Ya'acov our father made for Yosef, "the brothers hated him and could not speak to him peacefully." (Bereishit Rabba 84:8)
The parallel passage in the Talmud concludes: "for five sela's worth of silk with which Ya'acov favored Yosef over his other children (the weight of the coat), the brothers became jealous, and the matter came about that our ancestors went down to Egypt!" (Tractate Shabbat 10b).
In other words, Ya'acov's indiscretion brought about the exile to Egypt. By inadvertently sowing dissension among his sons, he aroused their hatred of Yosef and thus inevitably intitiated the unfolding of the subsequent events. If self-realization is the indispensable aid to self-growth, if painful trials are sometimes needed to prompt self-evaluation and its corollary of self-transformation, then it is Ya'acov who bears the brunt of that burden. Yosef and the brothers were fated to play out their respective roles in order to come to grips with not only themselves as individuals before God, but also to repair the nature of their relationship with each other. Ya'acov their father must also share in that tale, and this is why the Torah squarely places upon him the responsibility for both its inauspicious commencement as well as its triumphant outcome.