Thrown into a pit, sold as a slave, left to languish in prison for a dozen years for a crime he did not commit Joseph seems to have had ample justification for hating the brothers who perpetrated these injustices against him. And yet, as he finds himself holding in his hands the fate of those who caused him so much suffering, Joseph's first thought is of the dreams he dreamt 22 years earlier as a youth in his father's house.
The first dream was of eleven bundles of wheat, with the ten bundles belonging to his brothers bowing down to his. The prescience of the vision was inescapable: driven south by a famine in their own land, the brothers now sought to acquire wheat from Joseph, whose foresight had endowed Egypt with a vast surplus by which to survive the days of deprivation.
That Joseph remembered this dream at this instant is easily understood. But why would he simultaneously remember the other dream, in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him? This second dream hinted at the presence of his father, his stepmother, and his younger brother, Benjamin, together with the ten brothers who stood before him now. What possible relevance could this dream have at this moment?
WHEN THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE
It's noteworthy that Joseph was not the only one with his mind on the past. Feigning suspicion and anger, Joseph accused his brothers of coming to spy upon the land and had them thrown into the royal dungeon. Immediately, the brothers said to one another: "Indeed, we are guilty concerning our brother..." (Genesis 42:21).
What a strange reaction! Upon finding themselves unceremoniously cast into prison by an irrational tyrant, their minds as one go back 22 years to their mistreatment of their brother, Joseph. Why?
It is the way of the righteous to reflect daily upon their deeds, to search their souls from moment to moment in an effort to recognize their own shortcomings, trespasses, and miscalculations, to contemplate how their own actions might bring upon them extraordinary consequences ordained by divine justice. Consequently, the brothers were able to look back across 22 years and identify only one misdeed sufficiently severe to account for their predicament. Nothing other than the mistreatment of their brother could explain why they found themselves in such dire circumstances.
Joseph himself was thinking along a similar vein. He understood something the brothers could not have imagined, that his dreams were in fact a mandate from the Almighty to create the conditions that would allow the brothers to achieve true repentance. The process began with the realization of the first dream. It would be completed only upon the realization of the second.
The sages explain what is only hinted at in scripture: that Joseph confounded the brothers by showing an inexplicable knowledge of them and their family, by first accusing them of treachery, then granting them the chance to prove their honesty, and then planting evidence that would impugn their character. He dismissed the mysterious return of their money and showed an irrational favoritism to Benjamin, only to subsequently imprison Benjamin on false charges of thievery while allowing the others to go free.
What would the brothers do? Would they abandon Benjamin to his fate, as they had abandoned the young Joseph to the slave traders? Would they break their father's heart a second time to rid themselves of a younger sibling who had won greater favor than they from their father and from this inscrutable viceroy?
THE PROCESS OF REPENTANCE
The sages teach us that repentance is much more than simple apology. True repentance what we call teshuva, literally return requires us to commit ourselves to correct the character defects that have led to our misdeeds. A person may sincerely repent but still fall back into old behaviors, in which case he must reapply himself and continue striving to perfect his character. Only when one finds himself in an identical situation and does not fail to do what is right can he consider his tshuva complete.
And so Joseph understood from his prophetic dreams that the brothers' repentance would be truly completed only when they stood before him together as a reunited family, having been provided the opportunity to repeat their earlier betrayal by forsaking Benjamin to his fate. Joseph therefore orchestrated the circumstances by which Benjamin's imprisonment would bring the brothers to a point of decision equivalent to the moment at which they had decided to abandon Joseph himself. Only by placing Benjamin's welfare before their own could they prove that their repentance was absolute.
In the end, that is precisely what happened. Judah, leader of the brothers, stepped forward and pleaded that Joseph imprison him instead of Benjamin, lest their father die of a broken heart. Upon hearing Judah's words and beholding Judah's willingness to suffer in place of his younger brother, Joseph could not hold himself back in the presence of all who stood before him... And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph!" (Genesis 45:1-3).
It is perplexing that, instead of leading the brothers out of Egypt, Joseph's revelation seems to have plunged them deeper into exile. Indeed, the sages record that had Joseph not revealed himself at this time, had he forced the brothers to return home and bring their father, Jacob, down with the uncertain hope of gaining the viceroy's favor then, rather than descending into exile, the family of Jacob would have returned to their land and ushered in the messianic era. But if the brothers had truly repented, how did Joseph err by refusing to inflict any further distress upon his family?
WHEN REPENTANCE IS NOT ENOUGH
Tshuva is an internal process, through which we return to the path of righteousness by rectifying our inner imperfections. Nevertheless, our transgressions frequently cause either physical or spiritual damage, and our correction of the flaws that lead us into sin will not automatically repair any damage we may have caused. A reckless driver who truly resolves to drive safely must still pay for the damage of his collisions no matter how sincere his resolution for the future.
The final step of repentance, therefore, is atonement. Unlike physical damage, spiritual damage cannot be repaid with dollars and cents. It requires a certain amount of suffering, either emotional or physical, by which to balance the scales of justice. Ideally, the process of repentance produces a measure of remorse proportional to the severity of the transgression, so that the emotional anguish of the remorse itself provides the required suffering to achieve atonement.
The magnitude of the brothers' crime against Joseph, however, demanded enormous compensation. Even more, because Joseph himself held some responsibility for his brothers' actions by provoking their hatred, and because Jacob also fanned the flames of resentment by the favoritism he showed to Joseph, everyone involved in the incident had to experience a precise measure of emotional pain. By sparing his brothers and father any further suffering by revealing himself, Joseph failed to appreciate that the fullness of their repentance would not achieve a total rectification of their sin. Without experiencing the full measure of tension and uncertainty necessary for complete atonement, only the exile in Egypt would restore the family of Jacob to spiritual balance and stability.
From Joseph's act of compassion, therefore, we learn that suffering is not always harmful and relief from suffering does not always serve our best interests. Life presents us with many obstacles, and often we can find no rational explanation for the difficulties that Divine Providence places in our paths. But adversity is the staff by which the Almighty prods us to reflect upon our deeds, to strive for self-perfection, and to appreciate the sages' metaphor that this world is an entry hall leading to the World to Come. Life's obstacles offer us the opportunity to prepare ourselves in the entry hall so that we can make the best possible impression when, at the end of our lives, we stand ready to enter the throne room of the King.
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