Excuses; A False Security — By Ben

Parsha Vayigash starts in the midst of the cliffhanger from last week. If you’re just joining us, Yoseph after having been sold into slavery by his 10 older brothers, has survived servitude, temptation, and prison to become the 2nd in command over all of Egypt. Now after 20+ years, Yoseph’s brothers have come to Egypt in search of food, but Yoseph (unrecognized by said brothers) puts them through the ringer.  

Yoseph orchestrates a complex series of “unfortunate” events that, on the surface, might appear that Yoseph is taking his revenge, putting his brothers through hell. But he’s actually doing it for their benefit. 

Doing Teshuvah Gemara 

No, not Gamora doing Teshuvah

You may be familiar with teshuvah, a process by which one regrets their sin, admits their wrong doing, declares they will never do it again, and finally takes steps to never repeats said sin and, in doing so, repairs the divide between them and Hashem. Then there is teshvuvah gemara, or a complete teshuvah. The Rambam explains the difference with the following;

A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit the sin again and nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his teshuvah alone and not because of fear or lack of strength. 

Mishneh Torah: Hilchos Teshuvah; Chapter 2, Mishneh 1

Yoseph isn’t seeking retribution or revenge. In fact quite the contrary. He needs the brothers to recognize that they were wrong to have sold him into slavery. However not because he needs the apology, but instead so the rift between them will be mended. Yoseph is well aware that shoving facts in someone’s face to prove that they’re wrong isn’t the way to get them to apologize.  He needs them to do not just teshuvah, but teshuvah gemara. 

With this as his aim, Yoseph carefully constructs a situation that will put the brothers in an identical scenario to when they sold him all those years ago. First he needs to put them on the defensive where they feel threatened, then he needs to put Binyamin (their father’s new favorite son) in jeopardy, and he needs to do it in a way that the brothers will think it was Binyamin’s fault (putting a “stolen” goblet in Binyamin’s bag). Now with the stage set, Yoseph declares, “The man in whose hand the goblet was found, he shall be my slave, and the rest of you can go to your father in peace.” That’s how last week’s parsha Mikeitz ends. 

The Brothers’ Explanation 

Yehuda certainly meets the challenge and confronts Yoseph, refusing to let Binyamin stay in Egypt. How does Yehuda implore Yoseph? Below is straight from the Torah how Yehuda pleads. (paraphrased)

Yehuda’s all like, “My master, just lemmie explain something for you, so just chill for a sec. You were all like, ‘Have you a dad or a bro?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, dad’s old and the brother’s from another mother. Now his brother from the same mother… he dead. Dad like super loves this boy now.’

Then you were all like, ‘Go get him.’

And we were like, ‘Whoa. The boy can’t leave his dad, for if he leaves his father, he will die.’

Then you were like, ‘If that brother does not come, we done!’

So we went home and told dad, and he was all like, ‘I’m hungry, get food.’ But we said, ‘Dad we gotta bring Binyamin! And he spat back, ‘I already lost his brother, now you want to take this one away too? If something happens to him I’ll have a heart attack!’ 

I know it sounds like dad’s being all dramatic, but seriously, I literally think if you take Binyamin, dad’s gonna go six feet under. Now the only way I got dad to let little Benji come was because I swore to God Almighty, his neck is my neck. So if you gotta 12 Years A Slave someone, take me instead. Cause if I go home without the boy, dad’s done!

Bereishis 44: 18-30 (kinda)

It’s immediately after this Yoseph is unable to contain his emotions and reveals himself saying;

אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י 
I’m Yoseph, is my father still alive?

It’s a tremendous moment and may even be the climax of the whole book of Bereishis. Yehuda had clearly made a change. Is it teshuvah? Yes. Is it teshuvah gemara? Let me answer that question with another question.

Yehuda just got through saying no less than 4 times that Yaakov is still alive (that’s why I paraphrased the whole story above.) Why is Yoseph asking if his father still alive? 

Being Told You Were Wrong

As I said above, Yoseph has set this whole plan into motion to get the brothers to do teshuvah. He’s holding Yehuda’s feet to the fire and Yehuda has admitted that he was wrong. But unfortunately he is wrong about what he was wrong about.  Yehuda and the brothers are willing to admit that what they did hurt their father. But Yehuda doesn’t defend Binyamin saying he didn’t steal the goblet, and he doesn’t say, “you can’t take our brother because we are brothers,” and most importantly he doesn’t realize he was wrong about Yoseph’s dreams being right. So after several enumerations of the damage losing Binyamin would do to Yaakov, Yoseph has no choice but to call Yehuda on his flimsy excuse. “Oh, the well being of dad is so important to you? Well how’s my dad doing? We you thinking about dad when you sold me into slavery?”

Yoseph doesn’t say this out of anger or to be right for right’s sake. He’s trying to illustrate to Yehuda and the brothers how their own excuses have gotten in the way of them seeing the truth. But unfortunately, being shown how you are wrong rarely results in a change. 

We all have been told dozens of times about issues that we have. Sometimes by people we disregard and sometimes by people we hold in high esteem. Even a therapist that we spend $200 an hour can tell us our problems. And even though we may know those people think we have that problem or we can intellectually admit we have that problem, it’s not until we see it for ourselves that we will understand how to start to change. It is because Yoseph had to tell the brothers what the problem was instead of them figuring it out themselves, that they did not do a complete teshuvah. 

Your Own Words Used Against You

There’s a story in the Midrash where Eliyahu HaNavi comes across a fisherman who is wasting time. 


Eliyahu says to the fisherman, “Looks like you’re having fun, but shouldn’t you be learning some Torah? Aren’t you worried Hashem won’t be happy with you for wasting your life?”

The fisherman looks at him and shoots back. “No, I’m not worried.”

Eliyahu HaNavi inquires, “Oh? Why not?”

And the fisherman with a smile says, “Because I know exactly what I’m going to say to Him when I get there.”

Intrigued, Eliyahu asks, “Really? What is it that you’re going to say to the King of the Universe?”

To that the fisherman responds, “Easy, I’m going to tell him, ‘Look, you didn’t give me a mind to learn Torah. I have trouble reading. I have restless leg syndrome. ADHD. I think I’m dyslexic.'” (Once again I’m totally paraphrasing.) 

Eliyahu smiles and says, “Nice answer. Question though. If I wanted to start fishing, I could just take this twig and some string and I just drop in in the river, right?

The fisherman laughs in his face, “Sure if you want to catch a whole lotta nothing. First off what are you trying to catch? You need different lures and you need to know the right time of day. Then there’s the whole casting technique…”

Eliyahu lets the man go one for quite a while, detailing all the complex intricacies of the finer points of fishing. Finally when the man is done, Eliyahu then says, “That’s quite impressive. Tell me, you have a mind for all that nuance and specificity… did you just know all that intuitively? 

The fisherman with an insulted look comes back, “No, I learned it over years of hard work and practice…”

And to that Eliyahu responds, “Oh God gave you a mind to know all that, but He didn’t give you a mind to learn His Torah?”

With that, the fisherman started to cry. 


It is immediately after that story that the Midrash says “Oy lanu l’Yom Hadin. Oy lanu mi’Yom HaTochacha.” Woe is to us on the day of judgment, woe is to us on the day of rebuke. 

We all think that when we get up to Heaven and we sit in front of the heavenly court, we’re going to have all our perfectly rationalized reasons ready to go about why it was okay we couldn’t do X mitzvah. I couldn’t give tzedaka, money was too tight! I couldn’t carpool, I can’t spare the extra time!

And the moment we give our perfect little reasons, God, just like Yoseph with the brothers and Eliyahu HaNavi with the fisherman, is going to use our own words to show us how absurd we were. Money was too tight? Okay, what did you buy on Black Friday? You couldn’t carpool because of time? But you sat in your parked car and watched Youtube videos? 

We can rise to great heights of self growth and accomplishment. But the fact of the matter is that for so many of the things we don’t think we can do, the only thing stopping us are our manufactured rationalizations. It is not until we confront the obstacles to our growth and connection instead of codifying them, that we will really make the complete teshuvah that is necessary to reach true greatness. Don’t miss the chance to do teshuvah gemara. The opportunities are in front of you every day. 

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