Bereishit, 42:21-22: “They then said to one another, ‘Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us’.” Reuven spoke up to them, saying, ‘Did I not speak to you saying, ‘Do not sin against the boy’, but you would not listen! And his blood as well – behold! – is being avenged.”

When Yosef, the Viceroy of Egypt recognizes that his brothers have come for food, he accuses them of being spies. Eventually he agrees to let them go back to Eretz Yisrael to bring their other brother to prove that they were not lying. However, he demands that one of the brothers stay behind as a prisoner. At this point, the brothers begin to perceive that they are being punished measure for measure for aspects of the sale of Yosef many years earlier. Reuven then responds to them and tells them that he warned them not to do this sin at that time. It is unclear what Reuven is adding with his comment, and superficially he appears to simply telling them ‘I told you so’. Needless to say, this cannot be the correct understanding of this back and forth.

The commentaries1 explain that a careful reading of these verses reveals that the brothers were not in fact expressing regret for the actual decision to kill and then sell Yosef, rather they began to show remorse for not being more compassionate to him when he pleaded for mercy. This means that they still felt justified in rendering a judgment that Yosef was deserving of death, or being sent into slavery, but that they should have acted more humanely with him.2 Reuven replied to this sentiment, arguing that they were missing the point and that they should never have punished Yosef at all, because he was not guilty of what they believed, rather he was just acting as a child. Hence Reuven specifically called him a boy in this rebuke of the brothers, alluding to the fact that he was acting out of immaturity, not maliciousness. Consequently, Reuven argued that they were not only being punished for not showing mercy, but for the act of selling Yosef in and of itself.

It is fascinating to note that there are a number of connections between the whole episode of the sale of Yosef and Yom Kippur3: On Yom Kippur we read the narrative of the Ten Martyrs who were killed as an atonement for the sale of Yosef. Furthermore, the Mystic sources teach that the reason that it is forbidden to wear shoes on Yom Kippur is that, according to the Sages, Yosef’s brothers took the money they received from the sale of Yosef and bought shoes with it. Finally, the Rambam4 defines the essence of the Confession on Yom Kippur as the recital of the words, “But we and our fathers have sinned” (Aval anachnu v’avoseinu chatanu). These are very similar words to the words that the brothers used in the Torah Portion: “But we our guilty” (Aval ashemim anachnu). It is clear that the story of the sale of Yosef, and in particular the episode cited above, has a strong connection to the idea of teshuva that characterizes Yom Kippur, and evidently, they can teach us important lessons about the teshuva process.

Firstly, the attitude of the brothers to the unfolding events offers a fundamental example of how to react to Divine Providence. They recognized that God was communicating to them through what was happening to them. And when Yosef demanded that one of the brothers stay behind in captivity, they immediately recognized the parallel to their forcing of their brother into captivity, even though it took place many years earlier. Moreover, despite remaining convinced that their actual punishment of Yosef was justified, they were prepared to scrutinize aspects of their treatment of him, and to acknowledge that they should have treated him more mercifully. This is relevant to situations where a person has to perform a Mitzva that involves ostensible negative treatment of someone else such as rebuke, or speaking negatively for a constructive reason. Even if the person is clear that his course of action is justified, and even obligatory, he must still be very careful to proceed in such a way that he does not cause unnecessary pain to the subject of his actions.

Reuven’s reply teaches that often it is insufficient to question side aspects of an action, rather one must analyze the essence of the deed, and discern whether it was in fact justified. One may come to realize that he was misjudging the situation because of certain biases. In this case, it is possible that, on some small level, the brother’s jealousy of Yosef clouded their judgment and led them to rendering their harsh judgment without sufficiently taking into account all the possible consequences of their actions.

We have seen who the story of Yosef and his brothers teaches vital lessons on the teshuva process. May we merit to emulate these great people in our path to teshuva.

  1. See Seforno, Malbim, Netsiv and Ktav Sofer for variations of this approach.
  2. The commentaries discuss why the brothers felt Yosef was deserving of death. The Seforno writes that when he came to them, they thought that he planned to kill them, so they judged him as someone who threatens one’s life, and of whom it is permitted to kill.
  3. These reasons are cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  4. Hilchos Teshuva, 2:8.