This week, we
are faced with a story of incredible emotion and power. Joseph, now viceroy of
There is a tremendous amount of pain apparent in the story, most of it created by Joseph’s bizarre plots. So why does he do it? Why cause so much pain to his brothers, to his father, and to himself? Why not just tell his brothers straight away that he is the brother they thought was dead? There are a number of possible answers. The medieval commentator Radak says that he causes pain to his brothers because he wants to punish them for what they did to him. While that would be a very human response, Abravanel and other commentators point out that such a response would not justify the pain caused to his aging father. Other commentators suggest that the pain caused to his father by tearing Benjamin away from him was necessary because he was afraid the brothers might have killed Benjamin too, and he needed to see him alive before revealing himself. Some commentaries suggest that Joseph creates these painful situations in order to have the dream of his brothers bowing to him to be fulfilled, although that seems particularly cruel to me. The most common commentary is that he wanted to give them the opportunity to truly repent of what they did to him, so that he could then trust them and engage in a relationship with them again.
Rabbi Ismar Shorsch, Principal Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, holds that Joseph’s scheme is designed to ensure true repentance in his brothers (http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5764/mikketz.shtml). He quotes Maimonides who asks, “What is complete repentance? When we are confronted with a situation in which we previously sinned and could do so again, but this time we desist not out of fear or weakness but because we have repented. An example: a man has relations with a woman in violation of the Torah. Sometime later he finds himself alone with her again in the same place with ardor and virility undiminished. However, this time he departs without the slightest impropriety. Such a person has attained the level of complete repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1; My translation).” In other words, Maimonides holds that a person has fully repented when they could repeat the error but do not – in his example, same time, same place, same lovely lady.
According to Shorsch, Joseph completely recreates a situation where the brothers could get rid of their youngest brother and get away with it. Clearly, Benjamin had been caught red-handed. The brothers could have left him as an eternal slave to Joseph and they would have been completely in the right to so do. Why might they have done such a thing? Because now Benjamin was the favoured son, just as Joseph was before him. So to Shorsch, Joseph sets up the system to see if the brothers would do to Benjamin what they did to him – resent the favour their father showed, and take it out on the brother, effectively barring him from ever returning to the family.
But they don’t. And they don’t because, according to Shorsch, to Samson Raphael Hirsch and others, the brothers have completely atoned of their sin against Joseph. But is that really why the brothers don’t leave Benjamin behind? At the risk of criticising the view of a scholar significantly more learned than myself, Shorsch seems to neglect two important elements. The first is that the brothers have sworn to return Benjamin to Jacob and regardless of whether or not his arrest were justifiable, they would suffer consequences for not returning him. Secondly, Shorsch neglects complex human emotions. As Rabbi Jonathan Kraus suggests (http://ma002.urj.net/dtmikketz96.html), Joseph is probably awash with an array of complex emotions. Part of him probably does want to get back at his brothers and cause them pain, simply because it re-establishes power in Joseph’s mind. Part of him probably is very scared that they brothers might have killed Benjamin. And part of him probably does want to see reconciliation, but knows that can only happen when he’s sure his brothers regret throwing him into a pit.
And it is the complex array of emotions that rush through Joseph that speaks to us all, because we’re often faced with situations where emotion gets the better of us, where we find ourselves unsure why we’re doing what we’re doing. Times when we think we’re acting for one reason, but in fact later realise we were deluding ourselves, and had an entirely different motivation. I think the power of this story is its inherent humanity, its ability to strip us bare as complex individuals with many motives and motivations. And I think reading the story, we’re compelled to search ourselves. Instead of merely asking why Joseph subjects his family to so much tzuras, we have to ask ourselves how we might have behaved. How do we behave in our daily lives? In fact, it probably asks us one of the most probing questions of all, “Why am I doing this?” I think this is the question we need to take with us during the week, posed to us by the Joseph narrative. Not to obsess, but to occasionally reflect on whatever it is we’re doing, and ask, “Why am I doing this?” That is the question that grounds us in reality, that asks us what we’re doing and where we’re going, and makes us much more present with the world, and that can only be good. So this week, may it be that we all find time to stop and ask ourselves the question that perhaps Joseph should have been asking of himself, “Why am I doing this?” and let it be that the answers are good ones. Amen.