All of us have done things we regret. People apologize; they promise never to act that way again. Yet, how do we know if they have really changed?
Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuva, teaches that if a person who has sinned is presented with the same circumstances and opportunity to commit that sin a second time, but doesn’t, then you know that his repentance was complete. However, unless that opportunity presents itself, how do you know?
Joseph was desperate to know regarding his brothers. He couldn’t risk revealing his true identity to the scoundrels who betrayed him in his youth, unless he really believed that they had changed.
So, in last week’s parsha, Joseph created an elaborate set of circumstances that provided them with the perfect opportunity to repeat the crime: to rid themselves, this time, of Joseph’s little brother, Benjamin, the remaining child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. It would be so easy: let Benjamin take the fall for the theft for which he had been framed, and they can all go home, scot-free!
This week’s parsha opens with Judah speaking to Joseph on behalf of his other brothers. In a dramatic speech of breathtaking honesty, compassion and courage, the longest oration in the book of Genesis, Judah refuses to take the bait. Instead, he offers up his own freedom in return for Benjamin’s. Where once, he had taunted his father Jacob with Joseph’s bloodied coat, leading the poor man to believe his favorite son was dead, now he has only compassion for his father, and for the special love that Jacob reserved for Rachel’s children. Jealousy and anger have been replaced by acceptance and compassion. It is this scene that explains most clearly why Judah supersedes his older brother Reuven in family leadership, and why the Jewish people as a whole carry Judah’s name. In this climactic scene, the often murderous strife between brothers that has characterized every generation in the book of Genesis, is put to rest and a familial loyalty takes root that makes possible the birth of the Jews as a people.
And as for Joseph? Having answered the question of his brothers’ repentance at last, Joseph is free to drop the heavy mask behind which he had been hiding, and to reclaim his identity as a son of Jacob. May we find Joseph’s perseverance to seek out the truth, and Judah’s honesty and courage to face it.
Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent