Guilty Conscience

B”H

parashas Mikeitz 5781

“And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew him not.”

– Genesis 42:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

About twenty years after Joseph was rejected by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold as a slave to a caravan that passed by Dothan, Joseph ascended to second in charge of Egypt, next to Pharaoh, who placed his entire kingdom at his disposal. Joseph preserved grain during the seven years of plenty that were prophesied in Pharaoh’s dreams. Then, he began to carefully distribute food, at the beginning of the seven years of famine. Jacob’s family needed provisions, for like everyone else on the known earth, they were affected by the famine. So, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to purchase food, excluding the youngest, Benjamin, “Lest peradventure harm befall him” (Genesis 42:4, JPS).

When the brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph was in charge of selling grain to all the peoples who looked to Egypt for food. “And Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down to him with their faces to the earth” (Genesis 42:6, JPS). Thus the dream he had as a youth was only partially fulfilled, so far; yet, in the dream all of his brothers bowed down to him. Although the brothers did not recognize Joseph, he recognized them. They saw an Egyptian prince standing in front of them; Joseph saw his long lost brothers. Yet, he spoke to them harshly, insinuating that they were spies. They said that they were part of a family with twelve sons, “and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not” (Genesis 42:13, JPS). So, Joseph declared that if they brought the youngest down to Egypt, that would prove that they were not spies. He put them all in prison for three days; then, he kept Simeon in prison as a surety for their return.

The brothers response to this turn of events was such that they realised that the guilt they incurred because of their prior treatment of Joseph twenty years ago was being requited by a divine judgment against themselves. “And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us'” (Genesis 42:21, JPS). This is a classic example of “the sins of the heels,” overtaking the transgressor, in the day of retribution. According to the Zohar, the sins that people neglect to acknowledge, will accrue over time, until some evil overtakes the person. The brothers carried a guilty conscience all of those years; yet, not until the tides were turned did they begin to openly admit this to themselves.

We would be wise to learn from this example. The Zohar explains that subconsciously the sins that go disregarded by a person, i.e., sins that are not repented of, remain buried in the self, eliciting an unexplained fear. According to the Zohar, the source of the fear is the prescient sense of judgment that exists, unrealized, below the surface of consciousness. Perhaps, this is the underlying cause for so many people turning away from reflection upon oneself. Instead, we distract ourselves with endless preoccupations, trying to avoid the inevitable.

parashas Vayishlach 5780 – Diminished Merit

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayislach 5780

“Jacob sent messengers (malachim).”

– Genesis 32:4

According to Sforno, Jacob sent messengers, in order to find out Esau’s state of mind concerning him (Sforno, sefaria.org). Jacob had spent twenty years working for his Uncle Laban; now, Jacob was returning to his native land, as stated in Genesis 31:13. He was concerned that Esau may have been still harboring resentment towards him, for having acquired both the birthright and their father’s blessing for the firstborn. When the servants that Jacob sent ahead as messengers returned, they reported that Esau was approaching with four hundred men.

Rather than confront Esau, his brother, in battle, Jacob chose to send gifts to him, as part of a three-fold strategy. He hoped to appease Esau’s anger, by way of sending droves of animals ahead to him, through his servants. He also divided his entourage into two camps, placing his servants first, and then his family, so that if the first camp was attacked, the second could escape. Additionally, he prayed to H’Shem, asking Him for reassurance that he would be delivered from the hands of his brother, Esau.

When Jacob prayed to H’Shem, he said of himself, “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown Thy servant” (Genesis 32:11, JPS). According to Rashi, he felt as if his merit was diminished, perhaps, because of some sin that he had committed, so that he could not presume to think that H’Shem would deliver him from the hands of Esau (Shabbat 32a). Nachmanides comments that he “didn’t rely on his righteousness;” rather, “he made every effort to save himself” (Ramban, sefaria.org). Because he felt unworthy, he took practical measures on his own, in order to avoid a deadly confrontation with Esau.

In like manner, it is best not to feel entitled to H’Shem’s blessings in our lives. Instead, we should learn from Jacob, by prevailng upon H’Shem’s gadol chesed, the greatness of His kindness (Sforno, sefaria.org), while also making an effort on our own to overcome our challenges in life. In this manner, we reflect the Talmudic saying in our lives: “if you make an effort, H’Shem will meet you halfway” (Nedarim 39). As is elsewhere written, “And to him that ordereth his way aright will I show the salvation of G-d” (Psalm 50:23, JPS 1917 Tanach).