The Conclusion of the Joseph Story Helps Explain Rabbinic Teachings about Repentance

Dec. 21 2018

In this week’s Torah reading of Vay’ḥi, the Joseph story comes to a conclusion in his assurance to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery years before, that “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good.” In other words, the sale of Joseph unleashed a chain of events that resulted in his being made Pharaoh’s chief adviser, devising a plan that saved Egypt from a devastating regional famine, and being placed in a position to rescue the entire house of Jacob. Jonathan Sacks, following many commentators in arguing that Joseph did not reconcile with his brothers until it was clear to him that they had repented fully, applies to this tale an oft-cited rabbinic statement about repentance itself:

[T]he 3rd-century-CE sage known as Reish Lakish, originally a highway robber, was persuaded by Rabbi Yoḥanan to give up his lawless ways and join him in the house of study. . . . Perhaps speaking from his own experience, he said: “Great is repentance, because through it deliberate sins are accounted as though they were merits.” . . .  This statement is almost unintelligible. How can we change the past? How can deliberate sins be transformed into their opposite—into merits, good deeds? . . .

Reish Lakish’s statement is intelligible only in the light of Joseph’s words to his brothers. . . . The brothers had committed a deliberate sin by selling Joseph into slavery. They had then performed t’shuvah (repentance). The result, says Joseph, is that—through divine providence (“God intended it”)—their action is now reckoned “for good.” . . .

Any act we perform has multiple consequences, some good, some bad. When we intend evil, the bad consequences are attributed to us because they are what we sought to achieve. The good consequences are not: they are mere unintended outcomes. [O]nce the brothers had undergone complete repentance, their original intent was canceled out. It was now possible to see the good, as well as the bad, consequences of their act—and to attribute the former to them. Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, the good they did would live after them; the bad was interred with the past.

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More about: Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Jonathan Sacks, Joseph, Religion & Holidays, Repentance, William Shakespeare

Why Israel Pretends That Hamas Fired Rockets by Accident

March 21 2019

Israeli military and political officials have repeated Hamas’s dubious claim that the launching of two rockets at Tel Aviv last week was inadvertent. To Smadar Perry, accepting Hamas’s story rather than engaging in further retaliation is but a convenient, and perhaps necessary, way of aiding Egyptian efforts to broker a deal with the terrorist group. But even if these efforts succeed, the results will be mixed:

The [Israeli] security cabinet has met in Tel Aviv and decided that they would continue indirect negotiations with Gaza. A message was sent to Egypt, whose delegation is going back to Gaza to pass on the Israeli demands for calm. The Egyptians also have to deal with the demands from Hamas, which include, among other things, an increase in aid from $15 million to $30 million per month and an increase in the supply of electricity.

The requests are reasonable, but they do leave a sour taste in the mouth. Israel must ensure that this financial aid does not end up in the pockets of Hamas and its associates. [Israel] also knows that if it says “no” to everything, the Iranians will step in, with the help of their Gazan friends in Islamic Jihad. They are just waiting for the opportunity.

Hamas also must deal with the fallout from a series of massive handouts from Qatar. For when the citizens of the Gaza Strip saw that the money was going to the Hamas leadership, who were also enjoying a fine supply of electricity to their own houses, they took to the streets in protest—and this time it was not Israel that was the focus of their anger. . .

[But] here is the irony. With Egyptian help, Israel can reach understandings for calm with Gaza, despite the lack of a direct channel. . . . In the West Bank, where the purportedly friendlier Fatah is in charge, it is more complicated, at least until the eighty-three-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is replaced.

As evidence for that last statement, consider the murder of two Israelis in the West Bank on Sunday, and the Palestinians who threw explosives at Israeli soldiers at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem yesterday.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, West Bank