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.
Read more on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: http://rabbisacks.org/future-past-vayechi-5779/