Healing & Transformation

Parashat Miketz teaches us about teshuvah and forgiveness.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The painful past casts a long shadow on parashat Miketz. A father's insensitive treatment of his sons--and the resulting sibling rivalry--form the backdrop to this tale. Though the women are never explicitly mentioned here, Jacob's relationship to his sons' mothers underlies his attitude toward their children. Among his wives, Jacob loves Rachel only, paying scant attention to Leah and the sisters' maidservants.
women's commentary
Likewise, Jacob dearly favors Joseph--Rachel's firstborn--showing little evidence of affection toward his other children. Blind to the difficult family dynamic he engenders, Jacob had sent Joseph alone to check on his brothers (37:13-14), setting up a situation rife with the potential for disaster. Joseph's ensuing disappearance does nothing to stop Jacob from now favoring yet another son, Benjamin, Rachel's second (see 42:4).

But healing and transformation also begin here. A hint of what is to come is encapsulated in the name Joseph chooses for his first son, Manasseh, "For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father's house" (41:51). Clearly Joseph has not forgotten his troubles if they form the basis of his son's name. Rather, it seems that the past is no longer a burden to him. He is able to thrive despite the horrors he suffered in the pit where his jealous brothers threw him (37:24). The name of Joseph's second son, Ephraim, expresses this forward movement: "For God has made Me fruitful in the land of my affliction" (41:52). His marriage to Asenath indeed bears fruit: their children will become tribes of Israel.

A New Relationship

Joseph soon enables his older brothers to achieve a new relationship with their past as well, creating a set of circumstances that provides them with the Opportunity to respond to favoritism differently. That would represent true teshuvah (literally "return"), as the medieval Spanish rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides describes it: teshuvah has occurred when a person, confronted with the opportunity to commit a transgression anew, refrains from doing so--not out of fear of being caught or failure of strength (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah §2.1).
repentance
Teshuvah is, indeed, a primary theme of parashat Miketz. The word, too often mistranslated as "repentance," actually means "return"--to the right path. Whereas "repentance" connotes remorse and self-flagellation, "return" suggests a kind of joyous homecoming. Our mistakes, rather than serving solely as a source of guilt, become also a springboard of opportunity.

Perhaps unwittingly, the brothers had begun the process of teshuvah before meeting Joseph again in Egypt. In 42:1, at home with their father, they are referred to as Jacob's sons. Two verses later, on their way to Egypt, we read, "So Joseph's brothers went down ..." Restating classic midrashim, Rashi opines that "they set their hearts on conducting themselves toward him as brothers." This is an optimistic reading, but the language does suggest a change in their relationship to Joseph-though one that is undoubtedly buried beneath layers of guilt and denial.

Joseph manipulates the situation so that the brothers' feelings can rise to the surface. Simeon is held back as ransom. Alarmed at the prospect of returning home to their father one brother short, the brothers recall their cruelty of more than twenty years ago: "Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul's distress when he pleaded with us, but we didn't listen ..." (42:21). Perhaps because they could not hear him then, Joseph's pleading was not mentioned in the initial narrative (Genesis 37). Now, for the first time, the brothers exhibit empathy toward Joseph. According to Marsha Pravder Mirkin, empathy is the key to teshuvah): "Empathy ... is valuing another person enough to listen and hear her voice. It is a halting that then allows us to take action ... that brings us closer to becoming the best we can be" ("Hearken to Her Voice: Empathy as Teshuvah," in Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, eds., Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days, 1997, p. 70).

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Rabbi Singer currently serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA as rabbi and educator.