The Path of Repentance:

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Path of Repentance:

A Response to Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

By Rav Ya'akov Medan

Adapted by Rav Zvi Shimon


I would like to critique the theory offered by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun in last week's shiur and to offer an alternate explanation.


I find untenable Rav Bin-Nun's thesis that Yosef suspected that his father had rejected him and had approved of the brothers' actions. Yosef knew that he was, after all, his father's favorite son, and that his father had made him the striped coat. He also knew that his father had loved Rachel more than his other wives. Above all, would a man like Ya'akov behave so deceitfully, sending Yosef to his brothers on the false pretext of ascertaining their well-being, intending in fact that they sell him as a slave? Is there a son who would suspect his father of such a deed? This assumption is totally unrealistic.

It also remains unclear why Yosef, surprised that his father did not seek him out, came to harbor the kind of suspicions attributed to him by R. Bin-Nun. How could he be certain that his father knew of the sale, but refrained from searching for him? Why did it not occur to him that his father regarded him as dead? To this day, a person who disappears without a trace is presumed dead. Why should we assume that Yosef did not believe that the brothers were lying to his father? It was precisely because the brothers did not habitually report their actions to their father that Yosef found it necessary to tell his father all their misdeeds (37:2).

In addition, R. Bin-Nun claims that Yosef's stubborn silence was broken upon hearing Yehuda report Ya'akov's words: "He was surely devoured and I have not seen him since" (44:28). Yosef realized at this point that his father had not deserted him. However, according to the simplest reading of the text, Yosef's resistance broke down when Yehuda offered himself as a slave instead of Binyamin:

"... Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not see to the sorrow that would overcome my father! ...

Yosef could no longer restrain himself." (44:32-45:1)

R. Bin-Nun claims that Yosef's feelings of rejection by his family are the foundation for the naming of his first born "Menashe," meaning, "God has made me forget my hardship and my father's home" (nashani = made me forget).

In my opinion, the meaning of the verse is different. "My hardship" (amali) is to be understood as follows (see Ibn Ezra, Bereishit 6:13): "God has made me forget completely my hardship and the HARDSHIP of my parental home." Yosef does not offer thanks to God for having made him forget his parental home, but rather offers thanks for enabling him to forget his tribulations in his father's house. It is only after Yosef rises to the throne that he is able to make sense of his suffering in the two previous episodes, in prison ("amali") and in his father's house ("beit avi").


Abarbanel offers the following explanation for Yosef's not contacting his father while in Egypt:

"Even after Yosef tested his brothers by accusing them of espionage, he was still not certain whether they loved Binyamin or whether they still hated Rachel's children, so he focused on Binyamin to see whether they would try to save him." (chap. 42, questions 4 & 6)

Yosef's behavior is part of an overall scheme to test the brothers and provide them with an opportunity to repent fully for selling him into slavery. The sin of Yosef's brothers is one of the more serious sins related in the book of Bereishit. Both the Torah (Shemot 21:17, 20:13; see Rashi ibid.; Devarim 24:7) and the Prophets (Yoel 4, Amos 2:6-10 and many others) equate this sin of selling a free man into bondage with the gravest of sins. The penitence of Yosef's brothers is not an incidental event appearing as part of another story, but a major theme of the narrative.

Reuven and Yehuda were vying for the family leadership, Ya'akov having effectively ceased playing the leadership role (see for example 34:5, 34:13-14, 35:22, 43:5). After Shimon and Levi are excluded from the race for leadership, the struggle continues between Reuven and Yehuda. It finds expression in their argument as to Yosef's fate (37:22,26-27), in the recognition of the sin of his sale (42:22 vs. 44:16), in the assumption of responsibility for Binyamin in Egypt (42:37 vs. 43:8-9) and in additional verses in the Torah.

Reuven and Yehuda were each engaged in a process of penitence for similar sins, Reuven for having slept with his father's wife (as appears from the simple textual reading), Yehuda for having lain, albeit unknowingly, with his son's wife. It seems clear that their individual repentance is also part of the leadership struggle.

At first glance, there seems to be no connection between Reuven's sin with his father's wife or Yehuda's sin with his son's wife and the selling of Yosef. This, however, is misleading. According to the simple reading of the text, Reuven's intention when committing his sin was to inherit his father's leadership role during his father's lifetime, like Avshalom who slept with David's concubine. His attempt to rescue Yosef and Yosef's dreams of royalty (37:20) are part of his repentance for his sin with Bilha.

The proximity of the story of Yehuda and Tamar to the selling of Yosef indicates a connection as well. The chain of disasters that strike Yehuda, the loss of his wife and two sons, is apparently a punishment for selling Yosef. Reuven later advances the strange suggestion that Ya'akov kill his two sons, should he fail to return Binyamin from Egypt (42:37). It would seem that he was influenced by the punishment Yehuda had received for selling Yosef - the death of his two sons. This terrible punishment for a terrible sin is branded into Reuven's consciousness. Reuven is ready to receive the same punishment if he deserts Binyamin in Egypt.

Initially, Yehuda did not imagine that his sons died due to his sin, believing instead that "Tamar's fate is that her husbands will die" (Yevamot 34; see also Bereishit 38:11). Finally, Yehuda realizes that Tamar was in the right and he admits, "She is more righteous than I" (38:26). Only at this stage did he realize that she was not destined to have her husbands die, but rather that it was his destiny to lose his sons. The sin was his. From this recognition he rebuilds his shattered home.

The process of repentance accompanies the brothers wherever they go. When the Egyptian viceroy commands them to bring Binyamin, the second son of Rachel, the brothers are immediately reminded of the sale of Yosef. The two contenders - Reuven and Yehuda - respond in character. Reuven sees only the punishment for the crime, and he does not suggest any means of rectification.

"And Reuven answered them: 'Did I not tell you, Do not sin against the child; but you did not listen, and now his blood is being avenged.'" (42:22)

Yehuda acknowledges his sin, but also suggests a positive path of repentance for the evil done. He is not satisfied with sackcloth and fasting, which are merely expressions of mourning and acceptance of the verdict.

"And they tore their clothes ... And Yehuda said, 'What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has revealed the sin of your servants; we have become my lord's slaves.'" (44:13-17)

And further on, Yehuda suggests firm action:

"Let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord and let the boy go up with his brothers." (44:33)

From Yehuda's speech, it is apparent that when he said, "God has revealed the sin of your servants," he was not confessing to stealing the cup. He considered the whole episode of the stolen goblet as a fabrication. Otherwise there is no sense in his recounting of Binyamin's to Egypt, nor in his suggesting that he replace Binyamin. Rather, "God has revealed the SIN of your servants" undoubtedly refers to the selling of Yosef.

Similarly, Yehuda's words to his father, "If I bring him not to you and set him before you, then I shall have SINNED to you for all days" (43:9), indicate his understanding of the connection between Yosef's being brought down to Egypt and Binyamin being brought down to Egypt. Binyamin's abandonment in Egypt would be a continuation of his grievous sin of selling Yosef. Otherwise, how can we understand what sin he is referring to and why he should be punished if Binyamin is taken forcibly? We must therefore view the necessity of bringing Binyamin down to Egypt as a consequence of the sin. For Yehuda, protecting Binyamin at all costs is the atonement demanded for the selling of Yosef. In offering their respective propositions, Reuven and Yehuda remain faithful to their personalities: Reuven through acceptance of the punishment, and Yehuda through confrontation with the sin itself.

Our assumption is that Yosef too was plagued by his brothers' sin and, consequently, with the future of the house of Israel, no less than with his own fate. From the time he was sold, he had begun to rebuild not only his own life, but his family's unity. This unification was not to be forced upon his brothers, but rather achieved by willingness and love. Yosef desired a unification born of his brothers' regretting their sin, a product of wholehearted repentance. Yosef believed in his own ability to initiate such a process or at least to test its existence.

Yosef had commanded his brothers to bring Binyamin to Egypt. When the brothers actually brought Binyamin to Egypt, despite the danger, in order to redeem Shimon and to buy food, Yosef, who was unaware of Yehuda's assumption of guardianship and its importance, presumably saw the brothers' action as yet another failure to meet the test and challenge that he had set before them.

Yosef cries three times. The first two times he cries in private, and then restrains himself. The third time he breaks down totally and cries, openly and without control. R. Bin-Nun cites the third episode as proof that Yosef was taken by surprise by the developments, and therefore concludes that this outcome had not been planned by Yosef. However, R. Bin-Nun ignores the obvious connection between the three instances. Let us examine these three episodes.

A) First Tears:

The brothers are subjected to an intensive interrogation during three days of imprisonment, inducing them to repent for their sin and accept the punishment and suffering, with Reuven in the lead (42:21,22).

"On the third day, Yosef said to them, 'Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of you brothers be held in your place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.' And they did accordingly.

They said to one another, 'Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother [Yosef], because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.'

Then Reuven spoke up and said to them, 'Did I not tell you, Do not sin against the child; but you did not listen, and now his blood is being avenged.'

They did not know that Yosef understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them. He turned away from them, and wept. But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Shimon from among them and had him bound before their eyes." (42:18-24)

We have previously defined this kind of repentance as "Reuven's repentance," a repentance which involves submission and acceptance of the verdict, but lacks a program for improvement and change. Yosef is prepared to accept his brothers' confession and their submission. He witnesses the beginning of the ten brothers' reconnection to the sons of Rachel, and he cries (42:24). But this is not sufficient for him. He requires a fuller, deeper repentance.

B) Second Tears

Yosef expected that the brothers would return to him empty-handed, placing themselves in danger by explaining to him that they had decided not to endanger Binyamin for the sake of Shimon and were willing to suffer the shame of hunger. This is what would have happened, had Ya'akov had his way. Thus Yosef was disappointed when it became clear to him that the brothers had brought Binyamin in order to redeem Shimon, despite the danger to their youngest brother.

"Looking about, he saw his brother Binyamin, his mother's son, and asked, 'Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?' And he went on, 'May God be gracious to you, my boy.'

With that, Yosef hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there." (43:29-30)

Yosef is still unaware of Yehuda's assumption of responsibility for Binyamin. His mercy is aroused when he realizes that his younger brother's fate is to be no better than his own - Yosef views Binyamin's being brought to Egypt as a recurrence of his own sale. True, in this case it is brought on by hunger and is not the outcome of jealousy or hatred. Nonetheless, this was not the total repentance that was expected in the wake of the confessions he had heard from the brothers and Reuven previously.

The verse tells us that Yosef feels compassion towards Binyamin, and weeps in private. Yosef believes that Yehuda, the man who had proposed his sale, had prevailed over Reuven, the man who had tried to save him. This is the only possible explanation of Yosef's crying over Binyamin, his tears being tears of mercy for Binyamin and not tears of happiness at the event of their meeting. Why else should the exiled brother, who had spent a third of his life in prison, have pitied his thirty-year old brother, who had remained with his father and raised a large family?

C) Third Tears

Yosef decided to test his brothers once more. This time, however, the test would be more difficult. He makes his brothers jealous of Binyamin in the same way that they had once been jealous of him. He displays more outward affection for Binyamin than for them and increases his portion five times over, as well as giving him a striped coat (and five other garments, 43:34). He also attempts to arouse the brothers' hatred towards Binyamin for having stolen his goblet, an act that re-implicated them for the crime of espionage. Yosef's aim is to test their reaction to the prospect of Binyamin's permanent enslavement in Egypt.

The brothers rend their garments (parallel to Yosef's coat, 37:23). Yehuda says, "God has revealed the sin of your servants," and then offers himself into permanent slavery as atonement for his lifelong sin towards his father.

"Yehuda approached him and said: '...Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, If I do not bring him back to you, I shall have sinned to my father for all days. Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.'

Yosef could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, 'Have everyone withdraw from me!' So there was no one else about when Yosef made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace." (44:32-45:2)

At this point, Yosef is convinced of their total repentance. Yehuda's act combines two kinds of repentance. The first form of repentance is that required by the early mystics (foremost, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, author of the Sefer Rokeach), whereby penance must counterbalance the crime. Yehuda, in a torn garment as a permanent slave in Egypt, is in the exact position he had placed Yosef. Secondly, we have the repentance as defined by the Rambam:

"What is complete repenta? When a person is confronted with the opportunity to repeat his sin but restrains himself because of repentance, and not because of fear or weakness." (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:1)

Yehuda now is prepared to give his life to save Binyamin. Yosef comes to realize his mistake in crying for pity over Binyamin. He understands that Binyamin's being brought down to Egypt was not the result of the brothers' disdain for Binyamin but rather the result of Yehuda's becoming Binyamin's guarantor. Yehuda's repentance, including his attempt to amend the past, is a continuation and completion of Reuven's atonement. Yosef's weeping for the third time is a continuation of his weeping the first time, when Reuven submitted to the divine punishment.

When the repentance is complete, Yosef is no longer capable of restraining himself, and he weeps openly. At this stage, the brothers' repentance for selling Yosef into slavery is complete and Yosef can reveal himself to them.

(This presentation of Rav Medan's ideas is abridged from a much longer article in Megadim, vol. 2.)


After carefully reading Rav Medan's detailed arguments, I nevertheless maintain that my presentation of the events is the correct one.

There is clearly a process of repentance and rectification on the part of Yosef's brothers, and this is our guide to understanding the affair. But all this is God's plan, not Yosef's. All of R. Medan's evidence proving a process of repentance is correct; but there is no reason to credit Yosef with this.

At the end of Bereishit (50:15-21) we find the brothers, after Ya'akov's death, prostrating themselves before Yosef and offering themselves as slaves. This indicates that their prior repentance had not been complete, and they did not regard Yosef as having orchestrated (and accepted) their repentance earlier. Thus, the challenge of repentance offered the brothers regarding Binyamin is a challenge issuing from God. Yosef himself was forever acting according to natural, human considerations, as I explained.

It should be noted that R. Medan gives an extremely contrived interpretation of the verse explaining Menashe's name, "For God has forced me to forget all my tribulations and my father's house." The verse seemingly coheres with my explanation. He also totally ignores the significance of Yehuda's quotation of Ya'akov's words, "You have know that my wife bore me two; one departed from me and I said he was surely devoured." There is no proof that Yosef's inability to restrain his tears was due solely to Yehuda's final words and not to Yehuda's speech as a whole.




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