Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Miketz 5776
Crime and Punishment
The new chapter in the lives of Yaakov’s sons had started innocently enough: A famine in Canaan gave rise to a trip to Egypt to procure food. On the one hand, the brothers told themselves that they were doing what their father had asked them, and surely, in the merit of their filial devotion they would be protected and no evil would befall them. On the other hand, just below the surface of their conscious thoughts, they knew - even if their father had no inkling – that they were not the loyal and obedient sons Yaakov thought they were. They had conspired to kill their brother and in the end had “only” sold him. If they were relying on their track records as good sons to see them through, they had good reason to worry.
Surely, their destination did nothing to calm their jittery subconscious: Egypt, of all places! That was the direction that their “dearly” departed brother Yosef was headed when he was thrown out of the family – sold off like discarded property. Deep down they must have known: This trip would not be easy. Something would go wrong. And so, as soon as they attempt to purchase the much-needed supplies, they are attacked; falsely accused of espionage, they are thrown into a pit, the dungeon of the Egyptian prison.
Three days later, all but Shimon are released; he is held over as some strange sort of collateral. However, their time in prison jarred their memory, and their subconscious broke through to the surface; they finally gave voice to the submerged guilt that had been gnawing its way to the surface:
They said to one another, 'We are guilty because of what we did to our brother. We saw him suffering when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That's why this great misfortune has come upon us now.' (Bereishit 42:21)
The bizarre chain of events could not be coincidental: Once again, they were heading back home – but leaving one brother behind. This time, though, the “abandoned” brother was Shimon, who had been the chief instigator in the sale of Yosef. And this is only the beginning; the pressure continues to ratchet its way up to the boiling point. First, one of the bothers finds that the money with which he had purchased grain from to the Egyptians had somehow returned to his bag. Soon all the brothers find their money similarly returned to them. On a practical level, this was disturbing; they knew they would eventually have to return and face the Egyptian leader who was as intimidating as he was formidable. How in the world would they explain this - especially after already having been accused of serious crimes? But on a deeper level, on the level of their guilty conscience, their situation was all the more ominous: Years earlier, when they “left” Yosef behind, they had exchanged him for coins. Now, once again, they made their way home with coins in their bags that clinked and jingled and rattled their nerves – but no brother. The “coincidence” was eerie, unsettling. With each step they take, the sale of Yosef forces itself back onto center stage, coming into ever-sharper focus as it morphs from a dull, distant memory into very sharp pangs of guilt from which they cannot hide.
After some time and effort, Yaakov is finally prevailed upon to allow the brothers to return to Egypt, and to take Binyamin with them. All of the brothers’ pleading and cajoling ineffective, until Yehudah speaks up. It is surely no coincidence that the last time Yehudah took the lead, the last time he spoke up and rallied others around him, was when he convinced his brothers to sell Yosef.
The brothers return to Egypt, present Binyamin, and redeem Shimon; all seems well. They are invited to sit as a family and enjoy a meal together, unaware that their table is more complete than they imagine. They have no reason to guess that their twelfth brother is sitting with them, eating and drinking with them. The last time we saw the brothers sitting down to share a meal, their table was far less complete: Yosef was screaming for mercy from the bottom of the pit, and then their repast was interrupted by the merchants who so fortuitously happened to ride by and take Yosef off their hands once and for all – or so they thought.
And now the family is whole, at least in a certain sense. What was Yosef’s strategy? Perhaps his accusation that they were spies was intended to preclude the brothers from asking probing questions about the strange Egyptian despot who had taken such an intense interest in Yaakov’s family.
The meal comes to an end; provisions are procured, and the brothers are lulled into a false sense of security as they take their leave and return home. They are, they believe, whole again: Binyamin is with them, Shimon has been returned, and they can go home and see their father; Yaakov’s premonitions of disaster had proven false and their own fears unfounded.
There was, however, one brother who, unbeknownst to them, watched from afar as they rode away. He knew what they could not admit: They had left something – or, more accurately, someone - behind, someone they had underestimated from the very beginning. They had mocked him: Will we ever bow to you, they jeered? In fact, they had. Would you rule over us, they laughed? Indeed, that is precisely what had come to pass. Even sitting at the same table with him, the brothers were still blind to Yosef’s greatness, blind to capabilities.
Their false sense of security was soon abruptly shattered: Yosef’s soldiers caught up to them with a new set of accusations: Their master’s special (perhaps even magical) cup had gone missing, and they were now the prime suspects. Giving no thought to the fact that items of value have made a habit of appearing in their bags unexplained, the brothers grandstand: If the cup is found with them, they declare, the guilty party should be put to death, and all the others enslaved. Their response is so completely disproportionate and imprudent, we cannot help but wonder: Were they feeling guilty? Did they hope to be punished – for an earlier crime they knew they had actually committed?
Their protestations are ignored, and the terms they offer are rejected: The guilty party will be enslaved to their master Yosef, and all the others will be free to go. When their bags are opened, cold hard reality stares back at them: The bag with the contraband belongs to Binyamin. In a counterintuitive, seemingly illogical counter-offer, the brothers insist they will all be slaves. What motivates this strange reaction? Are they afraid to face their father without Binyamin, or has their guilt – not for this crime, but for the older, more heinous crime – finally caught up with them? They clearly know that they deserve to be punished: They had plotted to kill their brother, had sold him into slavery or worse, had lied to their father and continued to conceal the truth from him for decades. Now, strangely, it seems to them that God has “subcontracted” with this strange and cruel Egyptian ruler in order to exact revenge. And yet, their offer is rebuffed, their punishment once again held in abeyance. Only Binyamin, the one among them who is guiltless of their terrible crime, is to be enslaved.
'What can we say to my lord?' replied Yehudah. 'How can we speak? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered our guilt. Let us be your slaves - we and the one in whose possession the chalice was found.' 'Heaven forbid that I do that!' said [Yosef] 'The one in whose possession the chalice was found shall be my slave. [The rest of] you can go in peace to your father.' (Bereishit 44:16,17)
The psychological pressure of losing Binyamin triggers the full weight of the brothers’ guilt. As the parasha ends, the brothers are, essentially, begging to be punished; they know they are guilty of a terrible crime, and they seeking an apt punishment. Yosef does not let them off the hook that easily: Before the slate is cleared, they must see Yosef for who he really is.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden