Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter surprised many last week when, after decades of antagonizing Israel, he published a letter of apology to Jews around the world for "stigmatizing" the Jewish state.
Carter's outbursts and accusations against Israel and his acceptance of Hamas and other terror groups are well known. His 2006 book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," which laid the bulk of the blame for the lack of peace on Israel, and compares Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to the legalized racial oppression that once existed in South Africa, was seen as the last nail in the coffin of a relationship that ostensibly began positively at Camp David in 1978.1
In the letter Carter writes: "As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so."
How ironic that the ex-president should talk of Jewish forgiveness at precisely the time of year that we read the first biblical account of forgiveness. Apparently he underestimated just how appropriately timed his words were.
I'd like to point out that as much as the following discussion deals with a particular individual, its point and message are universal.
"I Told You So!"
Egypt is the backdrop of the biblical narrative. A terrible famine has struck the region, and people from all over stream to Egypt in search of food.
Jacob's sons, as well, have traveled from Canaan to replenish their stock. They hope for a quick and uneventful trip; but alas, their hopes are not realized. The stunned brothers quickly find themselves facing serious charges; they are accused of espionage.
Something is amiss. They detect it right away. The trumped up charges are lame,2 yet serious. And their case is being handled by none other than Egypt's viceroy!
Unimpressed by their denials, he passes their verdict: They are free to go home, minus one brother who remains as collateral. If they want him back they must substantiate their story by returning with Benjamin.
They're in a mess and they know it.
Religious men that they were, and staunch believers in divine providence, they began to read into their strange circumstance. G‑d is trying to communicate with them, but what is He saying?
After honestly assessing their situation, they realize that their sin has finally caught up with them. Their involvement in Joseph's traumatic sale was never far from their minds, and they saw this as retribution. Pay day had arrived.
In their words: "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen; that is why this anguish has come upon us."3
What happens next is shocking.
"Reuben spoke up to them saying, 'Did I not speak to you saying, "Do not sin against the boy?" But you would not listen! And his blood as well – behold! – is being avenged.'"
Broken down, Reuben apparently made two points.
The first one sounds a lot like "I told you so!"
His second point only added insult to injury: "Nice try! You're letting yourself off easy. You're guilty, not on one but, on two accounts! As you yourselves confessed, you ignored Joseph's anguish. But that doesn't come close to attempted murder and kidnap, which you fail to mention in your confession!"
With his harsh rebuke, Reuben seems to have acted unreasonably petty and severe, not to mention insensitive and unsympathetic: petty for holding onto old grudges, and harsh for underscoring and even adding to his brother's culpability.
His brothers had just articulated their admission of guilt for causing Joseph hurt. That couldn't have been easy or fun for them. Especially when taking into account that their original actions were triggered by their deep pain at watching their father favoring Joseph over them.
As the oldest of the bunch, and himself a penitent4 (see What Makes a Leader? for the details of his sin and his repentance), couldn't he find it within himself to provide unconditional comfort and encouragement instead of harsh judgment?
In reality, however, Reuben was being anything but self-righteous. He was acting out of love. His admonishment was meant to be instructional and educational, not hurtful. And it was because of, not despite, the terrible crisis that they faced, that his words of rebuke were necessary…
Two critical ingredients stand between proper penitence and lip service:
The first is taking full responsibility for the entirety of the offense committed.
The second is feeling remorse for what one has done, not for the consequences he is made to suffer. "Circumstantial repentance," or repentance brought on by one's newfound circumstances, is at best insincere, and at worst facilitates future transgression.
Reuben knew this firsthand, for it was to him that G‑d said, "Throughout all of history thus far, no man has sinned before me and then repented. You were the first…"5
To be sure, Reuben wasn't the first to sin. Others had beaten him to that. But he was the first to truly repent.
But what about Adam and Cain, who lived long before Reuben, weren't they the pioneers of repentance?6 What was lacking in their atonement?
After Adam partook of the forbidden tree in Eden, G‑d asked him: "Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?" Adam's response, which has since become popular among the male population, was: "The woman whom You gave to be with me—she gave me of the tree and I ate."7
Adam failed to take responsibility. Thus he lacked a vital component of true penitence.
Then we encounter Cain, who after murdering his brother is informed by G‑d: "Therefore, you are cursed... When you work the ground, it shall not continue to yield its strength to you. You shall become a wanderer and an exile on earth." Brought to his knees, Cain responds, "Is my iniquity too great to be borne? Behold! You have banished me this day from the face of the earth…I must become a wanderer and an exile; whoever meets me will kill me!"8
Feeling sorry for himself and his current situation, he regrets what he's done. Not unto his brother Abel, but unto himself.
He lacked true regret; the second staple of true penitence.9
Reuben was the first to repent proactively, not reactively. He didn't wait for anyone or anything in order to change his ways. Among all the references in scripture to his penitent path, no mention is made of any outside influence.
Additionally, he took full responsibility for his actions, though they were done to safeguard his mother's honor, not his own. Others in his place would have jumped at the excuse to be excused.
His unique contribution to the world of ethics and self-improvement stemmed from his profound realization: If he never took responsibility for his actions, he would never become a responsible person. If he never faced his shortcomings, he would never grow taller.
If it takes something outside of the sinner to elicit remorse, he isn't feeling remorse; he is feeling the pressure to feel remorse. His true self, which is not susceptible to external pressure, remains unaffected and unremorseful; forever tied to the wrong he has done.
Additionally, pressure comes and goes, and with it the remorse it brings.
Back to Reuben, who detected in his brothers' confession two breaches of proper penitence.
From his brothers' words, "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen," Reuben discerned a lack of taking responsibility on their part for the bigger crimes of attempted murder and kidnap.
To this he replied: "His blood as well – behold! – is being avenged." As if saying, "Own up to your transgression in its entirety."
From their subsequent words: "…This is why this anguish has come upon us," he recognized that their regret was circumstantial.
To this he responded, "Did I not speak to you saying, 'Do not sin against the boy?' But you would not listen!"
He was telling them to go back in time and really relive their misdoing. This is not about what is happening now, he was explaining, this always was a regretful deed—from the very moment when it happened, when I protested the dreadful injustice.
Instead of keeping silent out of indifference, he spoke up out of concern. G‑d had masterfully orchestrated this opportunity for repentance, and Reuben was not about to let them squander it. Instead of falling short of true repentance, he encouraged them to maximize and upgrade their penitence.10
Back to Jimmy Carter
In his letter of apology sent to JTA, the global news service of the Jewish people, Carter said, "We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel."
Is that all, Mr. Carter?
Are "criticisms for improvement" the sum total of your crimes that you now regret?
Does that encompass the entirety of your offenses against Israel? Equating Israel with an apartheid government and the acceptance of terror groups – scum-of-the-earth murderers – as legitimate entities, all that's simply "criticisms for improvement"?!
Reuben's words, so timely and timeless, seem to appropriately address Jimmy Carter: "His blood as well – behold! – is being avenged."11
Moving on to the question of sincerity, again the alarm bells go off:
"Carter's letter of apology struck many as odd, and the next day it was revealed that there may indeed have been ulterior motives.
"Just one day after Carter's letter was published, his grandson, Jason Carter, announced that he is planning a run for the Georgia state senate, with aspirations of a much grander political career. Having his grandfather tainted as a 'Jew hater' would have greatly hindered that career, especially as the district he seeks to represent has a vocal Jewish population.
"Both the timing and the absolute reversal of the former president's earlier sentiments have raised many questions."12
You be the judge.
Another critical point here is that even if one's regret is sincere, repentance does not end there. For changing one's future is as relevant to true penitence as regretting one's past.13
Here too, Mr. Carter has apparently failed us, as can be seen in his anti-Israel op-ed in The Guardian two days after he offered the "apology."
But the beauty of repentance is that there's always another chance. A chance we would like to see Mr. Carter take advantage of, in order to truly right his wrongs.
Quote from an article by Greg Bluestein in the Associated Press, as well as an article by the staff of Israeli News.
The basis for Joseph's allegation that they were spies was: "You entered through ten [different] gates of the city. Why didn't you enter through one gate?" (Rashi on Genesis 42:12).
See Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 84:19.
See Talmud, Eruvin 18b.
See the third chapter of Genesis.
See the fourth chapter of Genesis.
Adam and Cain are perhaps not to blame for not repenting properly. Imagine being the first person on the planet (not the only person on the planet, that doesn't take imagination for some...) and botching up the first command you were given by G‑d. What would possess you to think that after messing up you could go back to the way things were before again? That feeling bad might make a difference? That you could actually change the past through regret? Remember, you are the first one!
In the words of Adam himself, "This is the power of repentance? If only I would have known!"
Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichot vol. 30. pg. 198ff.
See also See also this fascinating article: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/6900.
From an article by the staff of Israeli News.
See Maimonides, Laws of Return chapter 2.