In this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, receives a visit from his brothers who seek relief from the famine in Canaan. While Joseph recognizes them, they don't realize that he is the brother they kidnapped and sold into slavery. This makes sense. They expected him to have died as a poor slave in Egypt long before. There is no reason for them to suspect that the Egyptian VIP who confronts them, speaking through an interpreter, is long-lost Joseph.
Joseph could them kill when he recognizes them. He could embrace them, forgiving them and consoling them to feel no guilt. He does neither. Instead, anticipating King David,1 and later, Hamlet,2 he puts on an act. In his case, he pretends to suspect them of being spies. He imprisons them. Then, he lets them leave and return to Canaan, keeping Simeon as a hostage of sorts. He tells them not to come back without their youngest brother (Benjamin).
Why does Joseph behave this way? Is it to exact vengeance on his brothers? To manipulate reality in such a way that his boyhood dreams will come true and all of his brothers will bow down to him? I think not. I believe Joseph is teaching his brothers—and by extension us—that repentance happens not when you confess or say you are sorry. Repentance occurs when you are confronted with the same temptation and refuse to do the same thing.
The medieval sage, Moses Maimonides, claimed this as the mark of true repentance. In The Natural, the great 20th century American writer, Bernard Malamud shows us a character who makes the opposite choice. The book tells about the baseball player Roy Hobbes who makes a mistake early in his career and pays dearly for it. Unlike the movie of the same name with Robert Redford, the book ends on a sad note. Confronted with a similar dilemma years later, after climbing his way back to the top, Hobbes does the same thing yet again. It is understandable why Hollywood would change the ending.
Joseph knows that his brothers can only repent of their transgression against him by changing their course of action when confronted with a similar choice. And he needs a stand in for himself, because he no longer is vulnerable to their machinations. Benjamin is the stand in. Through a series of manipulations, culminating in next week's Torah portion, Joseph sets up a scene by which his brothers can return to Canaan well-provisioned, with only this price—they must leave Benjamin behind.
At this point in the story, Judah, the fourth oldest son, but a clear leader, steps up and announces that he cannot allow Benjamin to be taken away from his family. Judah declares that he will go into slavery in lieu of Benjamin (Genesis 44:33). This is all that Joseph needs to hear.
He clears the room and sheds some personal tears. He reveals himself to his brothers. Just like Willy Wonka, who discloses that Charlie has passed the test and inherited the chocolate factory, Joseph explains that the test is over and the brothers have passed.
Joseph tests his brothers, but he also teaches them a way back from the abyss.
It is no coincidence that the editors of the new Reform High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, chose to include a Torah reading from the Joseph story for Yom Kippur.3 It is not only because, according to ancient Jewish tradition, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers on Yom Kippur.4 It is also because the lesson of Joseph is essential to Yom Kippur. We can change our ways. It begins with confession and sorrow but it ends with changing our behavior. To quote Maimonides:
Those who meet the same challenge but do the right thing, their repentance is complete. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:1)
It is no accident, then, that we are named Jews after Judah. He was the brother who stepped up and passed the test. He proved that his character had deepened and he would now make the right choice. Interestingly, it was a woman, Tamar, back in chapter 38 of Genesis, who taught him the meaning of integrity after he lied to her about her future with his son. At one point in the narrative, realizing his mistakes, Judah declared that Tamar is "more righteous than I" (Genesis 38:26). Ironically, this recognition has resonance later on in the Rabbinic term of adulation for his younger, testing brother: Joseph the Righteous5 will be his name.
Righteousness leads to righteousness. Tamar's integrity influences Judah's. Judah's beau geste enables Joseph to forgive his brothers. This happy tale hinges, however, on the test of Joseph. His actions may appear cruel but they are by design and they enable the family—and by extension—the Jewish people to move forward.
I once heard about a teacher who gave out a quiz with the following instructions: "I'm giving you two tests today, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you pass both of them. But if you pass only one, be sure it's the test in honesty because there are a lot of good people who don't know any trigonometry, but there are no good people who are not honest."
Life tests us all. The question is not whether we will fail. We will. The question is whether or not we will learn from our failures and change. Judah shows us the way.
I Samuel 21:14
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, 1.5.170-172
Genesis 50:14-26 in Mishkan HaNefesh (NY:CCAR, 2015)
Book of Jubilees 34:12
Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 35b
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).
Rabbi Goldberg points out that Joseph forgives his brothers only after they have illustrated their repentance for the wrong they did to him. They refuse, after confronted with the same temptation, to do the same thing. But Joseph has work to do as well before their reconciliation can occur.
He is a skilled interpreter of dreams, especially those of the Pharaoh. Within all of Torah, the word "interpret" (from the root pei-tav-reish, in its verbal and noun form) is used only in Genesis 40 (7x) and 41 (7x), but so often as to suggest that "interpret" offers the key to what Joseph must do. He needs to discern the meaning of what has happened to him, this time not in a dream but in reality, not for Pharaoh but for himself. What must Joseph learn? At the height of his power Joseph exults in Genesis 41:51, "For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father's house." Joseph thinks he is done with the past. Soon enough he learns that he is not.
Memory floods Joseph when he recognizes his brothers standing before him in Egypt. He wakes as if from a dream to the rawness of his trauma and loss from so long ago. His tears lead to insight and recovery. Joseph weeps first after hearing his brothers express their guilt over what they did to him (Genesis 42:21, 24). Joseph weeps again when seeing Benjamin. "Overcome with feeling for his brother," in Genesis 43:30, Joseph eventually turns back to his other brothers. Forgetting for Joseph, just as for most of us, is never really an option. But we can wake from dreams to clarity and compassion. Love can follow anguish. As a student of mine once memorably observed, tears, not words, led the way.
Dr. Adriane Leveen is a senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, NY.
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