The Joseph saga that reaches its dramatic apogee in this week’s Torah portion (Va-igash) supplies all three necessary ingredients for a bona fide process of repentance and return. Hence, it is only at this juncture that Joseph may “out” his true identity in the presence of his brothers. These three elements: ruing the committed woe, admitting personally the wrongdoing even before the victimized person, and finally walking away from an opportunity to repeat the offense when it avails itself anew, were enacted by Joseph’s brothers in his presence. Joseph’s subsequent forgiveness is ergo whole.
Hence, when Joseph is about to send off his brothers to Canaan with their purchased food provisions, yet, keeping Shimon in a house arrest for surety that they will return with Benjamin, he overhears his brothers’ lamentation “to one another: ‘indeed, we are guilty concerning our brother [Joseph] inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us [from the pit], and we paid no heed’” (Genesis 42:21). That was the brothers’ collective remorse.
Their apology will have to wait until they were set to return home after the second journey to Egypt for food procurement (at the end of last week’s Torah portion). Presently, Benjamin was in a true peril as Egypt’s viceroy claimed him for a slave after his cup of divination was “discovered” in Benjamin’s sack of grains. Facing an immense predicament Judah confesses to Egypt’s ruler: “what can we say to my lord? … God has uncovered the crime of your servants.” (44:16)
No, Judah could not have thought for a second that even if Benjamin had stolen Joseph’s cup of divination doing so would amount to the level of a “crime” warranting enslavement. Why, at worst it was a minor theft which legal settlement called for a protocol monetary fine, but not for enslavement. So, what “crime” did Judah confess? And even more significantly, though Judah had no doubt that Benjamin was framed he attributed the “crime” – a mere thievery of someone else’s object – to all brothers; “the crime of your servants,” not of a mere one servant. What did the brothers have to do with it?
These questions can only be resolved by determining that Judah was not really addressing the stolen cup incident. Using such a loaded word “crime” – (“Avohn” in Hebrew; Cain uses this word to describe the enormity of his action, murdering Abel, or alternatively his punishment for it by becoming “a restless wanderer”) – could not describe such a theft.
Judah must have felt that the Egyptian viceroy was Joseph himself before he officially “outed” his identity; there were a number of telltales that pointed out to it, such as the keen interest of the “Egyptian” in the wellbeing of the old father in Canaan, his eating a meal with Hebrews – even getting drunk with them – when “genuine” Egyptians regarded that as “loathsome,” the setup at the table according to age seniority, Joseph’s lavishing affection on Benjamin.
Judah, then, must have confessed the brothers’ criminal role in the sale of Joseph to slavery; at the least that was their intent when they cast Joseph into the pit. Even if the Midianites -– unbeknown to the brothers – were those who got him out of there, and then sold him off to the Ishmaelites as a slave, the brothers’ hostile actions against Joseph enabled his subsequent enslavement. Indeed, from Judah’s brilliant defendant’s speech (in this weekly Torah portion), it can be seen that Judah somehow felt that Egypt’s Food Czar, Benjamin’s prosecutor, was Joseph, as Judah (representing the brothers) confessed to Joseph their serious iniquity against him many years ago.
Full repentance, however, is determined only when the transgressor finds himself in a situation whereby the foul action may be repeated, but the former perpetrator walks away from the opportunity. In his speech addressed to Benjamin’s accuser, Joseph, Judah doesn’t only refuse the former’s demand that “the man in whose hand the goblet was found – he shall become my servant, but you – go up in peace to your father.” (44:17) Rather, Judah who had instigated the abandonment of one innocent brother in the past (Joseph), while not caring for his father inevitable unceasing pain, is now protecting that brother’s (full) brother, who was technically guilty. Indeed, Judah begs the Viceroy to allow for a swap: “So now, pray let your servant stay instead of the lad, as servant to my lord, but let the lad go up with his brothers. (v. 33) Otherwise, if Benjamin wasn’t free, our father “will die.” (v. 31)
It is time now for Joseph to reveal his true identity – his brothers just completed a full regimen of penance; they experienced remorse, confessed their crime and walked away from another opportunity to reiterate a similar woe. And as a complete denouement Joseph forgives his brothers for the agony that they brought upon him (and on their father to boot).