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The Path to Repentance

The Path to Repentance


The brothers held Judah responsible for the sale of Joseph. After all, Judah made the initial suggestion to sell him into slavery. Demoted from his position of leadership, Judah left home and embarked upon a self-imposed exile. He returned years later, contrite and prepared to make up for previous sins.

Years later, when the brothers traveled to Egypt to seek food during a famine, they were confronted by an Egyptian prince who demanded that Benjamin, their youngest brother, be brought before him to Egypt. Jacob, fearing that Benjamin, like his older brother Joseph, would disappear, refused to let him go, but Judah took it upon himself to bring Benjamin home safely.

In assuring Benjamin’s return, Judah reversed direction from his previous conduct of ensuring Joseph’s disappearance, thus taking the lead in correcting a sin that he had taken the lead in committing.

When his carefully laid plans backfired, Judah stepped up to speak on his brother’s behalf. He stated that he alone was responsible for bringing Benjamin home. He boldly proclaimed that he would not stand by and watch his father’s devastation.

Our sages tell us that in standing up to Joseph, Judah was prepared not only to negotiate but, if necessary, to fight. Our sages further inform us that Judah and his brothers could not have prevailed militarily against the Egyptian army. Yet they were prepared to put their lives on the line in a valiant effort to save Benjamin.

If nothing else, this was the ultimate yardstick by which Joseph measured their repentance. In the past they had sold their brother into slavery, and caused their father tremendous anguish; now they were prepared to lay their lives on the line in defense of their brother, and to save their father from anguish. This was precisely what Joseph was looking for. He wanted to know that they had repented.

Maimonides teaches that the ultimate sign of repentance is to be tempted by the same sin in identical circumstances and nevertheless abstain. Indeed, the brothers were provided with the opportunity to abandon Benjamin, but they had repented. They sacrificed themselves for the sake of their brother. When Joseph saw that, he forgave them and revealed his identity to them.

Our Parshah teaches that it is not enough to offer verbal apologies and display public bouts of contrition. In teshuvah (repentance), we must proactively reverse the damage caused by past sins and take constructive steps to adjust our future behavior.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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