When Bad Ideas Happen to Good People

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08 Jan 2019

I’ve long had a soft spot for Rav Ovadia Seforno’s commentary (okay, for many commentaries; it’s my thing) – in particular, his perspective on the story of Yosef and his brothers, which I happened to get to teach recently.

Little-known fact, unless someone corrects me: Seforno (15th-16th centuries, Italy) is the originator of the idea (which I learned growing up as if it were a longstanding midrashic tradition) that the brothers believed Yosef fit the category of a rodef, a “pursuer,” and that killing him was self-defense. He says they were wrong, of course, but they thought they were doing the right thing. They weren’t evil.

Some might characterize Seforno’s view as a case of blindly whitewashing biblical heroes’ sins away, but I find that reading his actual words uncovers more nuance, including the ways he addresses various details of the text within this underlying “rodef” approach.

One of those details is the especially troubling moment when the brothers have grabbed Yosef, stripped him of his ketonet passim, tossed him in a pit and… sit down to eat. “Alright, that’s done. Whew, look at the time – lunch!”

As if it weren’t bad enough to think of our holy ancestors plotting to kill, abandon, or sell their own holy brother – they could even be so callous as to sit and eat while he’s screaming for help from the pit they just left him in?

There are, of course, many ways to explain their attitude. One might just say yes, they were wrong and it was awful. (According to some midrashic traditions, they were punished specifically for this piece of their behavior towards Yosef – when Haman and Achashverosh also sat to eat and be merry, after agreeing to kill the Jews.) Alternatively, some commentaries (eg. Chizkuni) suggest they sat at a distance from the pit in order to avoid hearing Yosef’s cries; perhaps their consciences were indeed tugging at them.

Seforno, however, says the opposite. Their consciences were not tugging at them; they were perfectly at ease with a decision they fully believed to be correct, and that’s why they were able to sit and eat at such a time.

And then he concludes, “וזה קרה להם מפני שחשבו את יוסף לרודף…” – “and this happened to them because they thought Yosef was a rodef and that it was meritorious to kill him.”

This happened to them? What happened to them?

Their clean conscience, of course. That viewpoint was something that “happened to them,” once they’d determined that Yosef was a rodef.

What a penetrating insight Seforno just offered us, in that one little line.

I’m reminded of a segment in the old PBS math show, Square One, called “Oops!” We would see someone making a math mistake, maybe neglecting to carry a number or misplacing a decimal point. The ominous voiceover would then ominously announce something like, “Because of that tiny mistake, just look what happened” – followed by a video of some catastrophe like a plane crashing or a bridge collapsing.

One little mistake became a turning point; everything else happened in the context of that mistake. The person who made the mistake didn’t intend for the catastrophe, or even do the act that made the bridge or plane fall. He or she simply made one mistake – and just look what happened.

When Seforno says “this happened to them because they considered Yosef a rodef,” he highlights the potential for one initial determination to snowball out of our control, so that everything else – even the thoughts in our own minds, such as a clean conscience – seems to happen to us. That initial thought can move outside of us, taking on a life of its own. As if everything it leads to, even our own actions that stem from that one mistake, “happen to” us; as if, as things develop, we are transformed from active to passive.

In Seforno’s view, the brothers didn’t decide to be so cruel to Yosef, so callous that they could ignore his screams and enjoy a meal. Essentially, it “just happened” – because of their initial well-intentioned determination that he was a legitimate threat. They could have gone either way on that decision, but once they made it, their course was set and further thoughts were basically passive rather than active. The thoughts happened to them.

How often do we see this happen in the world, or in our own lives? How often do we allow one initial idea to set the ball rolling?

“I’ll just watch this episode of Supergirl to unwind before going to bed” – and three hours later, you realize how many episodes just “happened” as you sat on the couch after that initial decision. (Just a random hypothetical example… not speaking from experience or anything…)

In more serious instances – consider how people sometimes get carried away with religious zeal. In theory, zeal for mitzvos is commendable. But when zeal for Shabbos leads to throwing stones at those who drive on Shabbos, for example, then I have to wonder: Do people actively make those more extreme, harmful decisions, or do those decisions “happen” to them because one initial idea went too far?

When we think about this sort of trajectory in the context of interpersonal relationships, we have to consider both sides of the relationship: the one who hurts the other because of “one tiny mistake,” and the one who is hurt.

It’s really hard to forgive those who hurt us. But if we can take a step back and consider the roots of the other person’s action, we might find that we can separate one initial bad call from everything that resulted. I imagine that perspective played a role in Yosef’s ability to forgive his brothers. It’s hard to imagine forgiving such a terrible wrong so completely just because one sees how it led to a positive result (as Yosef says it did, in 45:5-8). But perhaps Yosef recognized that their actions all stemmed from just one innocent mistake – and that realization made forgiveness a little more attainable.

If only we could all identify the root causes behind the injuries others do to us, and work to correct misimpressions and forgive those hurts which were not malicious but simply mistaken.

And on the flip side, of course – if only those of us who misjudge and hurt others could recognize the root causes within ourselves. Because when we make the mistakes, we can’t just sit back and let it go, excusing ourselves with “oh, it just got away from me!” – not in the realm of interpersonal relationships, or any other area of life.

Were I ever to, hypothetically, be so irresponsible as to allow hours of Supergirl to “happen” to me – it would be because I allowed them to happen. When we find ourselves being carried too far by righteous zeal – it’s because we didn’t pay attention and stop it.

We might experience an idea or decision as if it “happened” to us – but it’s our responsibility to be alert for that possibility and catch the snowball before catastrophe “happens.”

That Square One segment always included a message from a fictional sponsor: “Oops! has been brought to you by Erasers. Don’t make a mistake without one!”

It is our responsibility to keep our erasers close at hand – ready to catch potentially catastrophic courses of thinking or action, and ready to start over with conscious intent.

Maybe the meal, with all its implicit cold cruelty, just “happened to” Yosef’s brothers – but the Netziv offers another layer. Though he uses language similar to Seforno’s to describe the situation– “המקרה שבא לידם, the happenstance that came into their hands” – unlike Seforno, the Netziv also suggests that they were still uncomfortable with their chosen course of action. He points out that they would have been sitting on the ground to eat, and could only have seen a distant caravan if they stood up – looking around and unable to settle down to their meal.  According to the Netziv, the Torah alludes to their discomfort specifically “in their praise,” to show they weren’t satisfied just letting things play out according to their initial decision. I might add that they actively “lifted up their eyes” – and that’s when they saw the caravan and Yehuda was able to recognize and introduce an eraser – a way to change the preset course of events. Because of that positive discomfort, just look what happened. Look what Yehuda made happen, preventing his brother’s death in an abandoned pit (as Reuven, of course, had earlier also tried to erase and redo the plan).

It is praiseworthy to live with some discomfort – questioning our decisions and the ideas which brought us to them, and watching for any catastrophes which might occur if we don’t catch the danger. But of course, discomfort alone is not enough. The brothers all saw that caravan, yet most continued in the path they’d already set. We might be aware of a flaw in our thinking, yet do nothing. I might notice the time but pretend I didn’t, allowing another episode to play.

The real praise comes when we act on our discomfort, actively shifting out of neutral to stop passively rolling down the track. It comes when we find the courage to wield an eraser.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.