Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 14, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
The accused stood before the lord, head down, aware that his guilt had been uncovered. Years of covering up the heinous crimes had finally caught up and now his only hope was to admit the pain he had caused and hope for mercy which he knew he did not deserve: “What can I say to my lord? How can I plead, how can I prove my innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servant.”
OK actually Michael Cohen did not say it exactly like that, but I was getting confused between the news reports and the Torah portion. This morning’s Torah portion opens with a heartfelt plea by Judah on behalf of his brothers before the Vizier of Egypt who has accused their youngest brother of theft. Judah senses that this can’t be serendipitous, but rather that God is now avenging the crime that he and his brothers committed against their brother Joseph years before. In the East they call it ‘karma’, but we Jews call it ‘Midah k’neged Midah’ or measure for measure.
But both scenes, the one in the federal court in Manhattan and the one in ancient Egypt were both quite poignant. Michael Cohen admitted to the judge, “I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today and it was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man, Donald Trump, that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.” And to the public he stated, “You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust”. There was a similarity to the wrongs as well – one kidnapped his brother and sold him into slavery, the other helped kidnap the country so that Donald Trump and others could sell it to the Russians, the Saudis, the Chinese and others. Unfortunately for Mr. Cohen, Judge Pauley did not reveal himself to be Mr. Cohen’s long lost brother ready to forgive, instead he gave him 3 years in prison.
There was a significant difference however – In Michael Cohen’s case, he admitted his criminal deeds and his evidence helped advance the larger criminal case, but if we look carefully, Judah and his brothers never admit what they did to Joseph. Why is Joseph so merciful and willing to forgive?
If we look carefully at the scene we can begin to understand what is required for forgiveness and why Joseph is a unique character in the Torah.
Judah begins by reviewing the previous conversation the brothers had with the Vizier, how they had acknowledged the family situation, an elderly father in Canaan, a brother no longer alive and a young brother at home and that to prove they were telling the truth, the Vizier had put Shimon in jail and insisted they bring the youngest back. The brothers had insisted that taking this beloved youngest son away from the father might kill him but desperate for food they had come back with Benjamin.
“Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his— when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief. Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”
At this point the Torah reports, “V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek l’chol hanitzavim alav” Joseph clears the room and alone with his brothers, Joseph reveals “I am Joseph, does my father still live”. The key word here is L’hitapek what is its exact meaning?
The word “L’hitapek” usually means to restrain oneself. However Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, suggests we should look to its more basic meaning of to be strong. He reads the verse, Joseph could no longer hold it together – listening to the poignant description of their father’s pain and grief, he could not longer control his emotions and called for everyone to leave so he could reveal who he was. The challenge to this explanation is why now? We have been told twice that Joseph was overwhelmed by compassion and brought to tears but each time he hid those tears from his brothers. He obviously had a plan or he could have exposed his identity before this. Why now?
Most commentators understand L’hitapek in its most common sense – to restrain. Joseph could no longer restrain himself. Rabbi David Kimchi understands that hearing of his father’s distress he could not restrain his tears. Nachmanides suggests that the attendants in the room were pressing the Vizier to be compassionate to this young boy and finally Joseph could no longer bear the tension and demanded everyone leave the room. But the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, suggests a different understanding of not bearing restraint. We find it in his comment on a subsequent verse: Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?”. Notice writes the Kli Yakar that he does not say immediately, I am Joseph your brother. Nor does he say Is our father still well. Rather, this response is a form of rebuke – Is my father, who suffered all these years, because you took me, his beloved son, away from him, still alive? Joseph wants to acknowledge what he has seen occurring all along – the dreams, for which his brothers rebuffed and attacked him for, had come true. They were bowing and capitulating themselves before him. He could no longer hold back this truth.
But the Shem miShmuel the commentary of Rabbi Shmuel Bornstayn, a Hasidic rebbe out of the Kotzker tradition, while agreeing that Joseph’s response was related to the brothers’ sin against him, understands it in a very different way. All along Joseph wanted to know if his brothers had changed. Had they done teshuvah? Were they worthy of doing teshuvah? And thus worthy of forgiveness? When he heard Judah say, Let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?” He realized that Judah had indeed repented and was willing to accept humiliation and suffering in order not to repeat the same hurtful act he had committed years before. At that moment he did not need to restrain himself any longer and could announce, “I am Joseph”.
The Sfat Emet, the Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, also out of the Kotzk tradition, suggests that it all began with the opening of our parasha – Vayigash Elav Yehudah – Judah approached him. But who is the him? It was Joseph, but also Judah himself and God. Judah in coming clean and admitting the truth –the pain and suffering he had caused his father, the acknowledgement that this time he would not abandon a younger brother, but instead suffer on his behalf – allowed the greater truth to be revealed to him. The Sfat Emet explains the miracle of true repentance is that even if the soul is sullied by sin, an act of repentance from the depth of the heart can transform sins into merits. Even if we cannot understand how this works, this transformation can occur, it is the power of the Creator in how God made the world. Just as a person can transform the heart by an act of true repentance, so can all the deeds of sin be transformed as well. This is the meaning of Joseph was no longer able to hold back. Joseph was hidden from his brothers behind the façade of the vizier of Egypt but in the face of humility and confession was able to reveal himself. When we have done wrong and truly act to change our behavior, accept with humility and self abnegation the consequences of our transgressions, then the hidden truth and inner point of light stands revealed.
How can we forgive someone who has hurt us? Our tradition tells us that the offender must appease us. This is certainly necessary. But for true repentance to take place, it is not sufficient. Joseph had to see that they, his brothers, had changed and would not repeat the offense again. Even without directly admitting that they had sold their brother into slavery, knowing they were transformed and not liable to that sin again was enough for Joseph.
Michael Cohen’s situation is certainly different but in one other way it is similar. Before the judge who would sentence Cohen to 3 years in prison, he acknowledged, “Today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is that today I get my freedom back.” Likewise Judah and even Joseph through the power of true repentance and ultimate forgiveness were also given their freedom. May we learn from their lesson.