There is a fascinating drama that plays out in Parshat Vayigash. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase grain, and Joseph (whom they don’t recognize) accuses his brothers of spying, locks them up, insists that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, and keeps Simon in jail as leverage. When Benjamin is brought to Egypt, Joseph plants his magical cup in Benjamin’s bag, accuses him of stealing it, and insists that Benjamin remain his slave in Egypt. Finally, Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity to his brothers.

The story is confounding. What was Joseph’s agenda? Why did he devise this intricate plan that included framing his younger brother? And, after all the twists and turns of this plot, what was the tipping point that compelled Joseph to give up on the game and cry out, “I am Joseph”?

The commentators offer quite a few answers to these questions,1 but let’s focus on the Abarbanel, who offers us a very powerful insight and “take-home message.”

Maimonides in the Laws of Repentance writes that one can only fully repent for a sin committed when he is put into the same circumstance that led him to sin initially, and this time he does not succumb to the temptation. In his words: “If he had previously sinned with a woman, then found himself secluded with her again and he still loves her, and his strength is with him and he nevertheless refrains from sinning—this is a complete repenter.”2

The brothers had sinned by selling their brother as a slave. The ultimate sign of their repentance and transformation would take place if they would be in a similar situation they had been in then, but refused to repeat their mistake. Thus, Joseph concocted the perfect scenario that mimicked the climate 22 years earlier:

  1. The sons of Leah had been offended that Rachel, Joseph’s mother, was Jacob’s most beloved wife, and by extension they loathed Joseph. Thus, Joseph targeted Benjamin, his mother’s second son.
  2. The brothers had been jealous that Joseph was the most beloved son of Jacob,3 and so was Benjamin, “whose soul was bound in his soul.”4
  3. Joseph had gotten in their way by sharing his dreams of dominion and giving negative feedback about them to their father.5 Benjamin was now accused of stealing Joseph’s cup, and because of him the brothers all had to return to Egypt and confront the difficult ruler (Joseph), who had already been on their case for a while.
  4. Most importantly, as a consequence of Benjamin’s alleged theft, Joseph offered to merely take Benjamin as a slave and let the brothers “all go in peace to their father.” This was the ultimate test: Would they watch their brother be sold into slavery and then come home and share a made-up story about him being killed by a beast?

Indeed, the Sefer Hayashar says that during the tough confrontation between Judah and Joseph in the beginning of this week’s Parshah, Joseph actually told Judah: “Why are you so dedicated to bring Benjamin back to his father, why don’t you just say that a wild beast killed him just as you told about Joseph?”6

Here was the brothers’ opportunity to get rid of the only remaining son of Rachel. Joseph was gone, and now with Benjamin gone they—the children of Leah—would automatically be next in line for seniority and love. Their younger brother was getting in their way, and they could easily leave him in Egypt as a slave . . .

And yet, this time they did a full 180-degree transformation. Same place, same situation, same possible agenda—but they were not going to repeat their mistake. They were willing to fight, to beg and to insist that Benjamin come back with them. Nothing was going to get in their way of brotherly love and dedication.

Aha! This was exactly what Joseph had been waiting for—proof that they loved their brother completely and were willing to put everything on the line for him. This was Joseph giving them the gift of repentance. This was Joseph bringing closure to himself and to them. This time they got it right.

In our own lives, we are often very hard on ourselves due to the mistakes we’ve made. We have an extra measure of Jewish guilt. At the same time, we must look at the instances when we got it right, the occasions when we managed to overcome temptation and human weakness, despite the replay of circumstances and the powerful allure to fail again.

Perhaps something at home or work didn’t go our way. We lost our temper and lashed out. But the next time (and there is always a next time) that things went wrong, we controlled our temper and held our tongue. In that moment, we grew, we repented, we became a little more holy.

Life often offers us the gift of redemption, where we get to be positioned in front of the same person, same screen, same letdown, same relationship hiccup or same learning moment. Let us learn from the brothers, who through the tremendous act of acknowledging their mistake, taking ownership for their bad decision, and doing it differently in the second round, brought healing and redemption for themselves and for Joseph.

Imagine if we committed to redeem our previous moments of weakness with our spouses or children and do it right the next time by talking kindly, forgiving, being the bigger person and smiling, even in potentially stressful situations . . . how beautiful our homes would be!

We can get it right.

Joseph enjoying a feast with his brothers. (Art by Yoram Raanan)
Joseph enjoying a feast with his brothers. (Art by Yoram Raanan)