What Constitutes True Nature of Repentance?


Pharaoh dreams of cows and grain, and in what seems like only minutes, Joseph is taken from his prison cell and elevated to the position of viceroy of Egypt, empowered to carry out the plan he had suggested to Pharaoh.

And, as Joseph had said, after seven years of plenty, the famine comes — not only to Egypt, but to the surrounding lands as well.

Joseph's plan had worked. Not only was there enough food to provide for the people of Egypt, there was also enough to sell to purchasers from outside the country.

In time, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy provisions for the family in Canaan, which is also suffering from famine. Joseph recognizes his brothers, who never imagine that the imperious Egyptian lord might be their brother, and sets his long-dreamed-about plan for revenge into motion.

For no apparent reason, he accuses them of being spies, and when they protest their innocence, he tells them that they must prove it by producing their youngest brother. He tells them that nine of them will be imprisoned while the 10th returns home to fetch Benjamin, but after three days, he relents and agrees to keep Simon as his prisoner until the others return.

It seems excessively cruel. Of course, Joseph had reason to want payback from his brothers, but his approach would hurt others even more. By holding his brothers in prison, he delayed the arrival of the purchased food in famine-wracked Canaan, possibly endangering his elderly father and his brothers' wives and children. And he had to suspect that his demand that Benjamin be brought to Egypt would cause his father great anguish.

The 15th-century Spanish commentator Abravanel suggests that Joseph's actions were meant to determine if his brothers had done teshuvah — had truly repented — for what they had done to him.

After Joseph imprisons Simon and again tells the brothers that they may not return without Benjamin, he overhears them speaking among themselves: "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us."

Joseph weeps, but he still isn't sure if they truly regret what they did to him or if their regret is only because they are being punished for it.

Refraining From Sin
Abravanel notes that, as Rambam stated in the Mishneh To-rah, complete repentance occurs when the sinner finds himself in the same circumstances and refrains from sinning, not because he is too old or physically incapable, but because he has done teshuvah and has changed.

So Joseph needed to test his brothers — would they treat Benjamin, their father's new favorite son, the way they had once treated him? Would they abandon Benjamin in Egypt and invent a plausible explanation of his disappearance for Jacob, or would they treat Benjamin as a brother?

As we'll learn in next week's parshah, the brothers have changed. Joseph reveals his identity, and the family is reunited.

Is this really what happened? Is Abravanel right — that Joseph was concerned with his brothers' spiritual well-being rather than revenge? It's hard to be sure, because the desire for revenge is a powerful force.

But even if it's an idealized portrait of Joseph, even if he was motivated by a desire for revenge and the opportunity to exercise power over his brothers' fate, Abravanel reminds us that it's not enough to say "I'm sorry" because you've been caught. The point is to truly feel sorry — and to use that feeling as a motivation for change.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.


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