December 28, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1050, Parsha Thought, VaYeishev


When Yoseph, viceroy of Egypt, accuses his brothers of spying, takes Shimon hostage and demands that they bring him their youngest brother, Benyamin, the brothers realized that their suffering was retribution for their sin of selling Yoseph into slavery.

In their own words:

Indeed, we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed.

And as soon as they express their deep remorse for their sin, Reuven, the oldest brother, proceeds to rub it in:

Did I not tell you not to commit a sin with the child? You would not listen. Now a (Divine) reckoning is being demanded for his blood.

Two questions arise upon close scrutiny of this exchange between Reuven and his brothers:

First, the brothers expressed remorse for not paying attention to Yosef’s pleas and anguish. Nothing was mentioned about the sin of selling their brother, which would have rated as a major sin even if Yoseph had not pleaded with them. Why didn’t they confess that they wanted to murder their brother and only then settled for selling him into slavery?

Second, why would Reuven try to add salt to the wound? They already admitted guilt and expressed profound remorse?

One could answer the first question (See Or HaChayim) by answering the second question. What troubled Reuven was that his brothers did not feel guilt for having sold their brother into slavery; a crime in which he was not involved. Reuven thus felt that their repentance was half-baked and castigated them for not listening to him.

This approach, however, begs another question. If they did not suffer remorse for selling their brother it must have been because they felt justified in doing so. As commentators point out, there were several reasons the brothers felt that Yoseph deserved the death penalty, including their fear that Yoseph was a physical threat to their lives. If so, one may ask, why his pleas and anguish changed that fact? If what they did was justified in their minds, why feel guilty about it at all?


The simple answer conveys a very important lesson in how we mete out justice to another. Even when we must employ harsh measures in disciplining the other, we cannot let that cloud our feelings. A judge must walk a tight-rope in rendering justice. On the one hand, he cannot allow his feelings to cloud the need for justice, for he would then be corrupting justice. On the other hand, the judge cannot allow his sense of justice to suppress his humanity. A person must be able to feel the other’s pain.

It is certainly bad enough to be deaf to another’s pleas. But it is even more egregious when the deafness is compounded with blindness toward anguish. The brothers’ mea culpa therefore included the fact that they “saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded.” Not only did they hear his cries, they actually saw the anguish on his face and yet they still paid no heed.

This is what troubled them to no end. The brothers were destined to become the progenitors of the Tribes of the Jewish people, about whom it is said that they naturally possess the trait of compassion. Moreover, the Patriarch Yaakov, in particular, personified the trait of compassion. How then could the brothers have strayed so from that path?

So, while they still did not feel that selling Yoseph was wrong, they were guilt-ridden for not harboring even a trace of compassion for him when they heard his cry and saw his anguish.


Reuven was not satisfied. He felt that their repentance was missing a crucial component. The fact that they, naturally endowed with compassion, were capable of successfully suppressing it was a sign that their entire thought process was flawed and their resultant behavior was nothing short of evil.

To explain: When a person acts contrary to G-d’s will, even if it is based on cold logical considerations, it has a deleterious and desensitizing effect on one’s emotions. Every violation of G-d’s will creates a barrier between the person and his or her soul. Reuven therefore argued to his brothers that they should have listened to him and not sold Yoseph into slavery. Their feeling guilty at the lack of compassion, he argued, was insufficient, because it was precipitated by their misguided action. They needed to accept responsibility for their behavior as well.

If Reuven needed further proof to buttress his case against them it was the fact that Yoseph now took Shimon as hostage and not the others. If the crime was only their lack of compassion, Shimon was no more culpable than the other brothers. However, if the crime was the actual sale of Yoseph, we can readily understand why Shimon had to bear the brunt because it was he who conceived of the plan to murder Yoseph in the first place.

Since we do not find that the brothers took issue with Reuven’s rebuke, we can thus conclude that they accepted his criticism and realized that they were guilty on two counts: first, for plotting to kill or sell Yoseph; and second, for having felt no compassion for him despite his pleas and anguish.


From this brief dialogue between Reuven and his brothers, two very important lessons emerge:

First, just as Yosef’s brothers were grief-stricken that they lost their distinctive Jewish compassion, what makes our mistakes more egregious is that they betray our innate power of compassion.

As Maimonides writes, T’shuva (repentance or return), is not just for wrongdoings. It is also for bad attitudes and flawed character traits. Indeed, he writes, those are more difficult to correct for it is easier to modify our behavior than it is to alter our personalities.

Second, and conversely, bad behavior causes us to become desensitized; and when we correct our behavior it assists us in personality changes as well.


As we have stated on countless occasions, we are standing on the cusp of the Final Redemption. In fact, based on what the Rebbe has told us, we have been standing on this threshold for several decades. Human nature doesn’t take kindly to stagnation. And history has shown us that in these conditions we lose our enthusiasm in the best case or become jaded and skeptical in the worst case.

When this feeling sets in, we need to be reminded that we cannot allow our brother Yoseph, the symbol of all our people, to remain in captivity, i.e., galus-exile. To resign ourselves to the prospect that we will have to endure exile for even a short period is a sign that we have become deaf to the pleas of the Yosefs who suffer and are blind to all their anguish.

To be sure, overtly or innately, we all believe that G-d will ultimately take us out of exile. But that alone doesn’t suffice. If we have any degree of sensitivity, we cannot tolerate even one day longer in exile. Even the most benign form of exile should be painful to us because of the pain and suffering of so many others, which will cease in the Final Redemption.


In addition to the feeling of intolerance we should have for the continuation of exile because of those who suffer, there is even greater urgency for those who do not appear to be suffering.

Our existence in Galus can be compared to a person who is, G-d forbid, in a coma. While that individual may not be feeling pain, we cannot say that the person is not suffering. There is nothing more disturbing than the fact that he or she is unconscious. Every effort will be made to get the person out of that state.

Our stay in exile is very much a comatose existence. For those aware that they are in a painful galus it is bad enough. But for those who are not aware of their galus-compromised state, the situation is even more dire. Although the “patient” himself or herself does not feel the pain, we who realize the serious nature of the illness cannot rest until we get them out of the galus-coma!

Yoseph symbolizes the Jew who has been sold into slavery and whose soul is crying out in deep anguish, pleading with G-d and everyone else who will hear to see his or her pain. As Yosef’s brothers and sisters, we cannot be callous and remain unmoved by their/our souls’ cries.

The second lesson can be derived from Reuven’s response to his brothers, as explained above. Reuven asserted that the reason they were so desensitized to their brother’s pleas and anguish was because of their desire to kill or sell Yoseph. Reuven contended that one cannot separate emotions from behavior. When we behave callously, we lose our emotional sensitivity as well.

Applying this to our feelings towards the continuation of galus, we cannot expect to be sensitive to the cry of our souls if we don’t tend to its needs; living a Torah and Mitzvos governed life, with the focus on action. This is what nurtures the soul and makes us aware of its pain. Without its nourishment, the soul’s cries are so weak and the crust of our Animal souls so thick, we cannot hear the soul’s muffled cries.

Torah and Mitzvos form a twin force to change the way we feel and think. The Mitzvos we do remove the thick crust that covers our soul and nurtures it, so that it can fully express itself. The Torah we learn alters the way we think about galus.

With heightened sensitivity to the deplorable nature of galus, followed by our heartfelt prayers to G-d to signal Moshiach that it is time to take us out of exile, we will see the imminent building of the Third, and eternal, Beis HaMikdash and the final true and complete Redemption!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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