Is Teshuvah Really So Simple? by Jesse Friedman


In Parashat VaYigash, the Torah presents the recognition scene in the story which started when Yosef was sold by his brothers as a slave.  It was truly an emotional time for all involved – Yosef, his brothers, and Yaakov.  In the midst of this high emotional state, Yosef tried to convince his brothers that they were never at fault for having sold him, while the brothers seem to be simply dumbfounded by shame or guilt.  After all is said, everyone has been forgiven, and they are ready to move on in their lives.

Nevertheless, Mechirat Yosef had apparently not been forgiven – it was a cause for the Jews' enslavement in Mitzrayim.  Was there something lacking in the brothers' Teshuvah?  Is Teshuvah sometimes insufficient?  Megillat Kohelet states, “Meuvat Lo Yuchal Litkon,” “A bent thing cannot be straightened” (1:15).  Is Teshuvah therefore meaningless?  It must not be so!  Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:3) teaches that even mental repentance, when heartfelt, can suffice to nullify a negative decree for a dying man.  How then could Mechirat Yosef, after the perpetrators had done their Teshuvah, have been the cause of many years of Jewish suffering?

We infer that there was something lacking in the brothers' Teshuvah.  What, if not full and proper Teshuvah, might they have done instead?  Perhaps they were sorry only for what they had done to Yosef; he was the one in the room with them, the one who knew all along what they had done.  Maybe, though, they never thought about the wrong they had committed against Hashem.  The very notion that they could cover up their misdeeds by dipping a coat in blood and presenting it to their father reflected upon their lack of recognition of God.  They fooled Yaakov, but they didn't fool Hashem.  And the entire time, they acted as if He didn't even notice.  This was a more significant transgression for which they could not have as easily repented.

But was their sin against God really unforgivable?  The Gemara states that there are certain merits (such as answering to Kaddish) for which Hashem will forgive a person for anything Bein Adam LaMakom.  So what else could be unresolved about the brothers' Teshuvah?  By covering up their action with a lie, they caused Yaakov to needlessly grieve for Yosef for so many years.  Unlike a regular mourner, who naturally gets over his loss after a period of time, Yaakov could not be consoled.  This was a Cheit Bein Adam LeChaveiro.  We see throughout history that man to man conflicts tremendously anger Hashem: they were the cause of Churban Bayit Sheini.  Since the brothers selfishly made no apparent efforts to tell Yaakov the truth or to ease his pain in any other way, their sin went unresolved, meriting She'ibud Mitzrayim.

We must be careful when we see someone going through a difficult time not to add to his anguish, by embarrassing him or otherwise.  Doing so is what Kohelet calls an unfixable act.  Pirkei Avot says that when someone is embarrassed, one should make a conscious effort to turn away from that person in order to lessen his pain.  May we learn from the punishment for Yosef’s brothers' actions that we must never embarrass anyone or otherwise sin Bein Adam LeChaveiro, and may we merit in return God's help in bringing us back to Eretz Yisrael.

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