Relaxing and reading Parshat Miketz are just two things that don’t go together. We begin with learning about Joseph being flung out of his prison cell just to become the second most powerful man in Egypt.
“Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you. You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command, all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you.” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Look, I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.”
We are then told about how, sadly, Joseph was right. Famine and hunger did ensue in Egypt and the surrounding countries. Canaan was no exception. Jacob and his sons started being effected, and so the Jewish people’s path to Egypt is paved:
“And he [Jacob] said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain being sold in Egypt. Go down there and buy us [some] from there, so that we will live and not die.” So, Joseph’s ten brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt.”
Suddenly, the dreams Joseph had as a teenager, no longer seem far fetched.
“And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he made himself a stranger to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan to purchase food.” Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
Rashi and other commentaries point out this recognition is not just facial. Joseph recognized his brothers in their time of need; they, not at all. Joseph recognized them for who they were. And they? They never really recognized who their brother was.
It is at this point that Joseph’s show begins.
“And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them, and he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” And they said to him, “No, my master, your servants have come to buy food…. And Joseph said to them, “This is just what I have spoken to you, saying, ‘You are spies.’ With this you shall be tested: By Pharaoh’s life, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.” Send one of you and let him fetch your brother, and you will be imprisoned so that your words will be tested whether truth is with you, and if not, as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!”
Joseph gives the brothers the ultimate nightmare; they will have to choose between going back to Israel, ask their father to send Benjamin to Egypt, or to leave their brother, Simon, imprisoned in Egypt for the rest of his life.
It is at this point that regret and reflection can begin falling into place. To let them know he means business, Joseph imprisons his brothers for three days. At the end of the three days, he asks them what they had decided.
This is where one of the most significant conversations in Jewish history takes place; the very epicenter of Jewish consciousness.
“And they said to one another, “Indeed, we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, saying, “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!”
Suddenly, the prison, the ruler, the food, Benjamin, they all fade away. It is no longer about one detail or the other. None of them care about the wet prison walls, the gold and power surrounding the strange Egyptian ruler, or the food sitting and waiting to be brought back to their desperate families. As with a flash of lightning, the brothers realize what this is all about. With a sudden flashback, there they are, standing on the edge of the pit, tossing their very own brother, Joseph, into the pit.
Rabbi Moses Nachmanides(1194-1270), from Girona Spain, in his elaborate commentary on this verse, highlights an astonishing point. The brothers are not regretting the sale of Joseph! They are not saying: “This is happening to us because we sold our own bother into slavery!” Instead, they are saying, “we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us”.
Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, the Ramban, draws a powerful lesson from this.
“they considered the cruelty to be something more worthy of punishment than the actual sale, for he [Joseph] their own brother, their flesh and blood, was begging, throwing himself to the floor, and they did not have mercy. The Torah did not describe this earlier for it is known in nature that a person will beg to his own brother when being harmed [by his own brother]. He will beg in the name of their father’s life, and he will do all he can to save himself from death. Reuben then told them, I had already told you not to sin [by hurting] the child for he was a young lad and he sinned to you because of his young age, and you should forgive him for that. And now, his blood, and the cruelty you showed, are being avenged. And our rabbis teach, it is his [Joseph’s] blood, and the blood of the old man [Jacob] which are being avenged.”
Selling their brother was not the brother’s greatest sin. It was the heartless cruelty of being able to look at young Joseph b e g g i n g, pleading, and crying for his life and ignoring that. Some commentaries explain the reason the brothers blame themselves only after they are released from a three day prison time, rather than when Joseph initially gives them his ultimatum, is because now they realize the ruler was showing mercy. The Egyptian ruler did think about their elderly father, he did think about their need to bring food back to their families, he did take them all into consideration, keeping only one of them hostage and not more. The brothers now realize how powerful sympathy is, how important it is to think of collateral damage of what we do.
Many wonder, why does the Torah elaborate so much, sharing with us many details of Joseph and the brothers. Sadly, the reason is that we need to hear it. All too often, knowingly or unknowingly, there is a child begging, and being ignored, asking us not to throw them in the pit.
This voice of Reuben thunders throughout our world, every day, saying: “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!” With rates of teen suicide as rampant as they are, one does not need to think hard about how this plays out. How many teens or even children are seeking an assurance that it will all be ok? How many children are silently begging us not to abandon them into the pit, not to ignore them?
How often do parents make a child feel uncomfortable in their own home, because the child doesn’t follow the “right” category of success their parent wants them to meet? How often do schools let a child know they are no longer welcome there because they don’t match a certain criterion of expectations? The echo of Reuben’s words, “Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded” thunders at us, demanding an answer, often left hanging in silence.
When the communist revolution took place in 1917, killing thousands, and outlawing all Jewish practice, Europe’s greatest Rabbi, Yisrael Meir HaKoehn, the Chafetz Chaim, was known to have said: “who knows if this is not the blood of the Cantonists being avenged”. The Canonists were young soldiers who were conscripted into the Czar’s army at the age of 11, not to be released until they were in their forties. This cruel and savage edict demanded that every Jewish community deliver a quota of children to the Czar’s army, of a life of service. This children, most often, were beaten, tutored, taken far away from home, and in many cases forced to convert to Christianity. A fraction of them remained alive and Jewish by the time they were ready to be discharged from the army. The quota had to be delivered by the Jewish community. Often the wealthy and influential in the community made sure that the poor, orphans, and disenfranchised children would be sent. Their blood was never forgiven. The Chafetz Chaim thought that the destruction of Russian Jewry, with its many millions, was tied to the way we treated the children in our community. “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!”
In the past, when advocating to a Jewish school administrator to accept or keep a child with a weak Jewish background, I was told time and again, “I would love to have this child in my school, yet then I will have parents of the “good kids” pulling their kids out, and I can’t afford to do that”. How often are schools or synagogues pressured to reject those who don’t have the highest of standards of Jewish practice out of fear the more strongly affiliated ones may reject them. Those children who are being rejected, have someone looking down from Heaven saying: “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!”
How often are those who are no longer children, begging us not to throw them away? It can be those struggling to belong who feel like they can no longer do it? Are we listening to their loud cry, or are we sort of happy when they slip away, and we no longer need to deal with them? “Indeed, we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen.”
I am embarrassed to share the following story. A passionate young man in a close-knit community shared with me the following anecdote. He had a conversation with a leading rabbi in his community about a group of people having a hard time fitting into the community. “They were at the risk of dropping out of the orthodox community,” he implored the leading figure to take action. “we don’t need them,” the rabbi said. “We just don’t”.
I was speechless.
If it were his own children, would this rabbi be as quick to give up on those people? If it were his own brother, would he be as prepared to just have them disappear? Probably not.
While some may see the story of Joseph being sold out by his brothers as remote and unrelated, the Torah does not. It is an important lesson because all too often we sell our brothers and sisters out, or let them slip away into oblivion, without listening to them crying from ditch’s edge. The story of Joseph is a powerful reminder, which is sadly so needed in so many generations, jumping at us, saying: “We are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen.” It is God Himself remind us and saying: “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!” Let us rise to the occasion, and not need to have later regrets. Let us make sure we are there for every child who needs us, that we dismiss no one, and that we make sure every single member of Am Yisrael is as precious to us as we are to ourselves.