“And they said to each other, “Surely we are guilty over our brother in that we saw his anguish when he appealed to us and we did not listen. Therefore this affliction has come upon us.” (Beresheit 42:21)
Teshuva – repentance – is an essential element of Judaism and human perfection. Is teshuva accomplished through recognizing that one has acted wrongly? How specific must one be in acknowledging one’s errors? Parshat Meketz deals with this issue.
The famine that Yosef had foretold strikes the entire region. Yosef’s brothers come to Egypt to seek provisions. Yosef recognizes his brothers but they do not recognize him. Yosef initiates a plan designed to torment his brothers. But through their suffering they will come to recognize their own shortcomings and the injustice in their treatment of Yosef.
Yosef accuses his brothers of being spies. He tells his brothers that he will provide them with the opportunity to vindicate themselves of this charge. He will permit them to return to Canaan with provisions for their families. However, one brother will be held in Egypt. He will only be released when the bothers return to Egypt accompanied by Binyamin – their youngest brother.
The brothers conclude that this tragedy is a result of their sin against Yosef. They had thrown Yosef into a pit and they sold him into slavery. Yosef had beseeched them to spare him. But they had ignored his pleas. With this acknowledgement, the brothers clearly began the process of repentance. Yosef’s plan to force the brothers to face their mistake was beginning to work. However, Reuven was not satisfied with the brothers. acknowledgement.
“And Reuven responded to them saying, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the child. And you did not listen and now payment for his life is sought.” (Beresheit 42:22)
At first glance, it seems that Reuven is attempting to exclude himself from his brothers’ sin. He begins by reminding the brothers that he had urged them not to act against Yosef. However, a more careful analysis of the passage indicates that this was not Reuven’s intent in his response. The pasuk describes Reuven’s comments as a response to the brothers’ declaration. The brothers’ statement did not contain any judgment of Reuven. They did not make any accusation against him. If his intention was to defend himself, he was not responding to the brothers. He was responding to a personal and internal sense of guilt. Yet, the Chumash describes Reuven’s comments as a direct response to the brothers’ declaration. He objected to some element of their assessment. What was his objection?
In order to understand Reuven’s comments, we must more closely study the brothers’ confession. The brothers believed that Yosef’s dreams reflected a desire to subjugate them. They interpreted Yosef’s behavior towards them as expressions of his desire to dominate them. For example, Yosef related to Yaakov critical reports on the brothers’ behavior. The brothers interpreted this as a calculated attempt to defame them. They were convinced that Yosef ultimately would try to destroy them. Based on this analysis, they believed that they were justified in removing Yosef as a threat. They regarded their actions against him as self-defense.
Now, let us study their confession. Their acknowledgment focused on a single issue. Sforno points out that they confessed to lacking compassion. Yosef had begged them to spare his life. They had ignored his appeals. In disregarding his pleas, they had lacked compassion for their brother. However, the brother’s confession did not contain any reevaluation of their assessment of Yosef. In other words, the brothers were saying that their assessment of Yosef had been correct. But their response had been too harsh.
Sforno explains that Reuven challenged their basic premise. He referred to the Yosef whom they sold into slavery as a child. Children do not develop and execute carefully designed plans. Children act out of impulse. Reuven was telling the brothers that they had misjudged Yosef. Yosef was not engaged in an elaborate scheme to destroy them. He was a child, acting out of immature motives. Their resentment of Yosef had allowed them to exaggerate his intentions and to rationalize their hatred.
In short, Reuven was telling the brothers that their repentance was far from complete. It is true that they had acknowledged wrongdoing. But they had not yet acknowledged their true sin. Reuven told the brothers that their repentance could not be complete unless they acknowledged their misjudgment of Yosef and their true motivation. He was not willing to allow the brothers to continue to deceive themselves.
“And Yosef bought all of the land of Egypt for Paroh. For every Egyptian sold his field because of the famine became intense. And all of the land was Paroh’s. And Yosef transferred all of the people to cites from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Beresheit 47:20-21)
The famine continued and Yosef feed the Egyptians with the provisions that had been stored during the seven years of prosperity. Eventually, the Egyptians were forced to sell all of their possessions in order to purchase food. Still, the famine continued. With their wealth exhausted, the Egyptians came to Yosef and offered to sell themselves and their land for more food. Yosef – acting as Paroh’s agent – agreed to buy their land in exchange for food. Yosef further decreed that twenty percent of all produce must be delivered to Paroh – as the owner of the land. The remaining eighty percent Paroh would allow the people to keep. The Torah tells us that Yosef then redistributed the population. Every Egyptian was required to move off of his land and resettle elsewhere. Why did Yosef require this relocation?
The simplest answer is provided by Radak and others. Yosef realized that the sale of the land to Paroh would have little meaning to the seller if he were permitted to remain on the land. In order to reinforce that one’s land now belonged to Paroh, Yosef demanded that each person abandon his land and accept another property – in a different location – given to the person by Paroh. This assured that the Egyptians fully appreciated that they were not longer the owners of their land but were working the land belonging to Paroh.
This interpretation raises another issue. According to Radak’s interpretation, Yosef’s purchase of the land and his redistribution of the population were an expression of his loyal and devoted service to Paroh. Yosef took his duties seriously and worked towards strengthening his king’s power and influence. Although this is an interesting lesson, the Torah is primarily an account of the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Why would the Torah delve into the nature of Yosef’s relationship with Paroh?
Rashi suggests that Yosef’s motivations were more complicated. He did want to serve Paroh loyally. However, he was primarily interested in helping Bnai Yisrael. He feared that as immigrants to Egypt, they would be subject to suspicion and discrimination. He saw an opportunity to remove the stigma and being aliens in Egypt. His plan was to make every Egyptian and alien. By relocating the Egyptians, everyone became an exile from his original home. Bnai Yisrael and Egyptians all became aliens within Egypt.
It seems that according to Rashi, this account is not included to demonstrate Yosef’s loyalty to Paroh. It is intended to reveal his devotion to Bnai Yisrael. Yosef saw an opportunity to serve Paroh in a way that was invaluable to Bnai Yisrael and he took full advantage of this opportunity.
However, it is possible that there is a further message in Rashi’s comments. The Chumash tells us the ultimately, the Egyptians persecuted Bnai Yisrael. To a great extent, this persecution was based upon a suspicion of Bnai Yisrael as foreigners in Egypt. In other words, all of Yosef’s careful planning had little or no long term effect. Despite Yosef’s efforts to protect Bnai Yisrael from the persecution that is often experienced by foreigners, the persecution occurred.
This teaches us two important lessons. First, the persecution of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt was not the result of poor diplomacy on Bnai Yisrael’s part. On the contrary, Yosef exercised excellent judgment and devised and carried out a brilliant plan to protect Bnai Yisrael. Instead, the persecution was part of the Divine plan and was an expression of Hashem’s will.
Second, Hashem’s plans cannot be defeated. Hashem wanted Bnai Yisrael to be regarded with suspicion and Hashem’s will was fulfilled despite Yosef’s masterful efforts. Even Yosef could not undermine Hashem’s plans!
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 42:21-22.
 Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:21.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:21.