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Resolving to Stop Rationalizing

  • Resolving to Stop Rationalizing

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

As we approach the secular New Year, we may be contemplating resolutions and ways of acting differently in the coming year. Judging from anecdotes from family and friends, I would say that gym memberships climb rapidly in January and February, only to diminish over the following months. Part of the reason for this phenomenon, I think, is that we human beings have an extraordinary capacity to rationalize what we do: We decide not to support a charitable campaign because other, wealthier people will do so. We choose not to study Torah because we have so many other pressing obligations. We neglect going to the gym because we are too busy. We want to make amends with a sibling, yet we justify not doing so by pointing out that he or she should have called and apologized. A grain of truth can often be found in our rationalizations. Yet, when we look closely at ourselves, we know we can do better.

We illustrate this recognition during the Days of Awe in the Vidui prayer. In our Gates of Repentance service, we rise for this prayer, which is found right before the silent confession and Al Cheit recitation. The Vidui implores God to not be deaf to our pleas, because we are "not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before You . . . we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess . . . we have transgressed" (Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Chaim Stern, ed. [New York: Central Conference of America Rabbis, 1978, rev. 1996], p. 324). In the Hebrew text, the key word marking the transition from imploring God to confessing to God is aval. It is usually translated as "but," "yet," or, as in this case, "rather." We say "rather[aval]do we confess. . . we have transgressed."

The use of aval in theVidui resonates with its use in this week's Torah reading. Joseph's brother have arrived in Egypt. They are facing a famine in their homeland and have come to Egypt for provisions. They are granted a meeting with the vizier of Egypt-their brother Joseph-and they do not recognize him. Yet he recognizes them and accuses them of being spies. They insist they are not, and that they are part of a group of twelve brothers, sons of Jacob. One of their brothers "is no more" and the other is back home with their father. Joseph insists that they return to Canaan and bring their other brother (Benjamin) back to him. He holds one of the brothers as collateral back in Egypt to ensure that they return. As they prepare to depart, the brothers say to another, "'Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother [Joseph]! We saw his soul's distress when he pleaded with us, but [ aval] we didn't listen-on that account this distress has come upon us'" (Genesis 42:21).

Their sin is captured by the word aval. They knew their betrayal and sale of Joseph was wrong and said, "'We saw his soul's distress. . . but [ aval] we didn't listen.'" We can imagine what was going through their heads as they left Joseph and returned to Canaan. We knew we were sinning terribly, but, aval, at the time, we felt he deserved it. We knew our father would be devastated, but, aval, he didn't care much for us anyway. Alas, the text does not reveal the thoughts inside their heads. Yet, it does indicate that they experienced a moment of recognition, a moment of understanding that they could have acted differently, but, aval, they did not.

When we hear and recite the word aval on Yom Kippur or on this Shabbat, we might think of the rationalizations we have offered. We might think of the responsibilities we have evaded. Aval is a call to look inside of ourselves. It is a way of internalizing rather than externalizing responsibility. In their statement, Joseph's brothers confessed their wrongdoing. They recognized that they had known the right way to act, but, aval, had not followed it.

What is so important about confessing? Isn't that more a Catholic rather than Jewish tradition? As Maimonides guides us in Hilchot T'shuvah, "someone who injures a colleague or damages his property, does not attain atonement . . . until he confesses and makes a commitment never to do such a thing again . . ." (1:1). The truth is that confession is only one step in the process of t'shuvah. The second step is committing oneself to not repeating the act again. The third is refraining from sinning in conditions similar to those in which one first sinned. Joseph's brothers perform each of these acts, as illustrated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and others (see Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings [Jerusalem: Maggid Books, pp. 303-310)

Each of these steps is critical to moderating our natural instinct to say but, aval. If we do so successfully, we might reinterpret aval as "indeed" rather than "but." That may well be the intent of the word in the Vidui prayer. On Yom Kippur, we try, as Joseph's brothers did in ourparashah, to recognize and amend our rationalizations. Rather than use aval to justify, we can use it acknowledge. Rather than translate aval as "but," we can read it as "indeed." The meaning we give it depends on the intention behind it. When we rationalize, aval is a word of moral evasion. When we confess, aval is a word of responsibility.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.

The Morality of Memory
Davar Acher By: 
Lewis C. Littman

Rabbi Moffic compellingly describes the "aval" moments that challenge us to choose between rationalization and responsibility. One such moment occurs at the beginning of our parashah.The king of Egypt has dreams that no one can interpret; but one of his courtiers knows who can. Two years earlier, Pharaoh's chief cupbearer and chief baker had been imprisoned with Joseph (Genesis 40:3-23). Each had a dream that Joseph accurately interpreted: the baker was executed and the cupbearer restored to his post.

In return for sharing the good news, Joseph had asked only that the cupbearer speak kindly of him on his return to Pharaoh's service. But as we so often do when crises pass: V'lo zachar . . . et Yosef, "[the cupbearer] did not remember. . . Joseph" (40:23).

Now, the redeemed cupbearer does recall, and faces a moment of decision: to speak and remind Pharaoh of the king's earlier displeasure or to keep silent, ignoring the plea of the young interpreter of dreams to be remembered. The cupbearer summons the courage to speak: Et chata'ai ani mazkir hayom, "This day I must acknowledge [literally, 'cause to be remembered'] my sins"( 41:9). The cupbearer says chata'ai, not "my sin," but "my sins." One chet, "sin," was certainly the unidentified offense for which he had been imprisoned. In the interpretation of Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550), the cupbearer acknowledges: "I am not resentful that you imprisoned me; it was my own fault" (Mikraot G'dolot, Genesis 41:9). Might the other chet have been forgetting a fellow prisoner's plight? Now, forcing himself to remember, he places the welfare of another over his own fear. He could have kept silent, aval he did not. Articulating his memory elevates a thoughtful moment to a moral act and completes his redemption through which flows the path to Joseph's redemption and ours.

Rabbi Lewis C. Littman is the rabbi at Temple Bat Yam in Fort Lauderale, Florida.

Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258