Minutes of Torah

In this week’s parashat Miketz, the story begins with Joseph and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams as seven years of plenty followed by an equal period of famine, and Joseph’s appointment to a position second only to Pharaoh himself.  

When the famine arrives in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers (except for his full brother Benjamin, whom Jacob insists remain with him at home) come to procure rations in Egypt. Joseph recognizes the brothers although they are unable to identify him; and accusing them of espionage, he detains one brother (Simon) as surety for their return, sending them home with provisions to Canaan, but telling them they may not return unless they bring brother Benjamin with them.  

When these rations run out and Jacob insists his sons return to Egypt for more, they respond that they cannot do so without Benjamin, per Joseph’s instructions. Only when Judah offers to take full responsibility for Benjamin does Jacob accede, sending the sons with Benjamin back to Egypt.  Then Jacob ends with this plea for their protection:

“And may El Shaddai dispose the man (Joseph), that he may release your brother Simon as well as Benjamin.” 

Jacob offers a prayer to God utilizing the name El Shaddai. Although usually translated as “God Almighty,” the name literally means “God of the breasts,” and which represents the Divine aspect of Rachamim, or mercy. The text, however, does not tell us why Jacob is invoking this aspect of God in this instance.

However, earlier we saw that after the brothers had been accused of espionage, and thinking that the presence of an interpreter meant that Joseph did not understand them, they acknowledged that this consequence came about because of their previous mistreatment of Joseph.  When Joseph heard their confession of wrongdoing, he turned away and wept.

When we consider the brothers’ acknowledgement of their transgression, we can now understand why Jacob was invoking the Divine aspect of mercy.  Jacob, being a prophet, was no doubt aware of the brothers’ recognition of their bad behavior.  And with the brothers’ acceptance of guilt, Jacob was invoking God’s Rachamim, to help insure that no further punishment will be visited upon them. 

And as well, Joseph’s hearing his brothers’ feelings of remorse could no longer be angry at them, nor do them any harm, because of their admission of guilt.

We understand from this story an essential manner in which we need to treat ourselves.  To be sure, we naturally review our actions critically to determine if they are good or bad.  But once we acknowledge our shortcomings we cannot impose strict justice in response and continually beat ourselves up.  For if we followed this course of action, we would find ourselves on a path to doom for we would be overwhelmed by the consequences of our wrongdoing, and our lives would be consumed with guilt.

Hence, once we have made an honest recognition of our shortcomings, we need to take a breath and pause in our evaluation.  We must avoid the natural inclination of imposing strict justice to our lives and consider an alternative option in responding to our discovery.  Rather, having recognized our flaws and concluding that we need to mend them, we are entitled to apply Rachamim to our self-evaluation, recognizing our essential humanity and the ways in which we (and others) will always “miss the mark.” In short, we need to combine accountability and compassion in reviewing our behaviors.  For just as Joseph’s brothers deserve Rachamim after their confession, so, too, do we deserve Rachamim after we make ours.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz

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