Sign In Forgot Password

Miketz 5783           December 24, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights!

Last Shabbat, the parsha included the cold-hearted brothers ignoring the pleas of Joseph who they had thrown into a pit in a fit of jealousy and anger. They sell their own brother into slavery, delude their father into thinking Joseph is dead and move on with their lives. This is the story of Genesis, brothers who hate each other and do all manner of nasty things to secure their own place in the family. Esau had almost murdered his brother over the deception of Isaac so Jacob could secure Esau’s blessing. Now Jacob’s sons almost murder Joseph for being a narcissistic favorite of their father.

In this week’s parsha, we find the brothers have long ago stopped thinking about Joseph. When a famine strikes the land, they don’t even consider that going to Egypt might bring them in contact with their long-lost brother. They don’t recognize the Egyptian minister of grain as Joseph, but Joseph recognizes them. Remembering his dreams, he watches as they bow before his royal office and beg for food. Acting harshly, he accuses the brothers of being spies and demands they bring Benjamin down to Egypt. Simeon is to be held as a hostage until they return. The whole exchange is ugly, and the brothers try to figure out why they are in such hot water. They come to conclude that the entire problem is due to one great sin, selling Joseph into slavery all those years ago. In chapter 42 verse 21, speaking in Hebrew unaware that Joseph can understand what they are saying they admit their sin about Joseph saying: “…We saw the distress of his soul when he begged us, but we didn’t listen…”

First of all, it is a bit odd that they don’t consider selling their brother into slavery as a big sin. In fact, later Jewish law would make it a capital crime to sell a Jew into slavery. When we find a Jew who is a slave, it is a positive mitzvah to pay the ransom and redeem the Jew from slavery. Here they were the ones responsible for selling their brother but that does not seem to bother them all that much. What they are concerned about is turning a deaf ear to Joseph begging his brothers not to sell him; begging his brothers to lift Joseph out of the pit. As the brothers face the retribution of their crime, it is the crime of being cold hearted that most tears at their souls.

Many later commentators take note of this strange reflection. The brothers are actually guilty of several sins; kidnapping, selling into slavery, deception of their father, and making no effort for years to try and find Joseph and undo the damage they have done. The fact of this case is that from the moment they deceive their father, bringing the bloody cloak of Joseph and letting Jacob think that his son is dead, they really can’t admit anymore of what they have done. They are committed to the lie and to watch their father, every day, pine away for the son he believes is dead.

Now, facing accusations of being spies by the official who they need to sell them grain, they finally confront the truth. The truth that they sold their brother, the truth that they closed their ears to his pleas, the truth that they lied to their father to make sure Joseph would never come back. It is now that they face the sins from long ago. The guilt in their conscience that they have covered over for years suddenly is staring them in the face and they can ignore it no longer. This moment is the beginning of their repentance for what they have done.

It is an important moment for us who read these words of confession by the brothers. Who here does not carry in their souls some sins from the past that still haunt our souls? Sometimes it is some foolish act we remember from our youth. But sometimes the sins strike very close to home. I thought about this, during this week, when a congressman who is supposed to take a seat in the House of Representatives in January, has been discovered to have multiple lies in his official biography. Schools he said he attended have no record of his attendance; high status workplaces he said he had joined have no record of his employment. I wonder if now that the truth has come out, if he is repentant or just annoyed that he got caught?

One of the things we have learned this year, in our weekly bible class, is that when a person sins, that person must bring a sin offering to the altar. It is not for his sin that the offering is made, there is a guilt offering to atone for personal sins. The special sin offering is designed to purify the Temple. According to biblical theology, when a person sins, it not only stains their own soul but puts a stain on the Temple as well and that stain has to be erased by the sin offering.

We no longer offer sacrifices for our sin or for our guilt. We use prayer to recognize the damage we have done by sinning. The Amidah that we say on weekdays includes a confession of sin we can say every day. The big moment for repentance, we know, is Yom Kippur. Once a year we recognize what we have done, we admit the damage we have caused, we confess in public and out loud what we are guilty of and ask God and those we have hurt to forgive what we have done.

Multiple times on Yom Kippur we admit to specific sins we may be guilty of in the past year. The most succinct confession that we offer many times over the course of the day is that “we can’t say that we have not sinned in the past year. In truth we have sinned.” This is a confession that is very close to the confession of the brothers in our parsha. They have realized that the trouble they are in is due to some sin, and the sin that comes to mind is their cold-hearted rejection of their brother’s pleas. It is not hard to imagine, next week, after a moving plea by Judah, and Joseph finally reveals who he is to his brothers, their reaction is one of terror. The boy they sold into slavery so long ago now holds in his hands the power to have them all executed for their sin. The Torah records them as being frozen with fright. They believe they are all doomed to die.

Joseph, however, as angry as he might be with his brothers, sees a larger picture. Yes, they sold him into slavery. Yes, they were cold hearted, yes Joseph has every right to punish them severely for their actions 21 years ago. But Joseph also realizes that while they did mean to harm him, what actually happened was that God needed to send Joseph down to Egypt in order to save Egypt and to save his family from the famine as well. Joseph is forgiving for all the brothers have done, but the brothers, for the rest of their lives, will live with the fear that at any time Joseph could come after them for their past cruelty.

Yom Kippur does much the same for us each year. We have a long list of sins, and we realize just how far from the right path we have strayed. No matter how much we might wish that we had done better in the past year, the reality is that we have fallen far short of the goals we set for ourselves the year before. I always say that we human beings have an infinite ability to delude ourselves. We pretend that we are not “really” sinning. We convince ourselves that what we have done was not noticed and was not such a big deal. We hide our actions behind a complex wall of delusions and lies so we will not have to feel bad for what we have done.

But as Yom Kippur approaches, we realize that we have only deluded ourselves. God knows what we have done and those we have hurt are still hurting. Yom Kippur forces us to confront our sins, to realize the pain we have caused and the hurt that still remains, so we have to confess that what we have done was wrong. We have to admit, out loud, that we are not perfect, that we have played fast and loose with the truth, and we have to take responsibility for what we have done.

Once we have confessed, we have to make restitution. We have to ask those whom we have hurt to forgive us. Like Joseph’s brothers we must metaphorically bow before those we have offended and harmed and ask to be forgiven. There may have to be some kind of restitution depending on how we have injured someone, but we can’t move forward until we erase the pain we have caused. Only forgiveness can allow us to move forward.

I once heard a story about a nine-year-old boy who came to his Rabbi to confess a sin. The Rabbi asks what kind of a sin was bothering the boy. The boy recalled how one day, during a baseball game he was playing in, the ball was hit right toward him, but he missed the ball and it rolled between his legs. The rabbi asked, “did it cost your team the game?”  “No,” said the boy, we made the next out and it did not affect the outcome of the game.” The Rabbi then asked, “was another player hurt by his missed catch?” “No,” said the boy, “I was all alone in the outfield.” The Rabbi was confused, “I am not sure I understand what the problem is here. You made a mistake that anyone could have made. Why is it bothering you so much?” The boy replied, “You don’t understand Rabbi, the ball rolled between my legs. How could that happen? I am a much better ballplayer than that!”

Our final act of repentance is to confront God and admit that we should not have sinned at all. We are better human beings than that. We have higher standards that we ignored. We believe in ourselves, and we let ourselves down. We believe in God, and we think we let God down as well. The hardest part of repentance is to forgive ourselves. The only way we can do this is to resolve never to do such a thing ever again. If we are to have any integrity, we must find our way to live up to our own expectations.

Hidden in this story of brothers is a framework to resolve the hurt we bring to others and the hurt we bring to our own souls. Forgiveness is a blessing we can attain, if we are sincere in our confession, honest with our apologies and true to our resolve to be better.

We are coming swiftly to the beginning of a secular New Year. This is a good time to remember the commitments we made to improve on Yom Kippur and to use this calendar moment to renew our resolve to change. The days of the year are swiftly passing. Are we making the best use of each day to live up to our civil, moral, and spiritual expectations? What can we do today, to make our lives better?

May God give us the determination, the stamina, and the commitment to keep working on becoming a better human being. Let us go into the new year with a resolution to not drop the ball. As we say ….. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Urim Sameach

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783