Truths We Come To Only Eventually

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Uncomfortable Truth of Gd’s Having Sent a Punishment

To introduce his knowledge of Yosef and his skill at dream interpretation, the sar ha-mashkim, Paroh’s wine overseer who had been in prison, notes he is recalling his sins, 41;9. Meshech Hochmah suggests the recall put those sins in a new light for the sar ha-mashkim himself. Up to that point, he could insist Par’oh had erred or worse in putting him in prison. [Remember: Rashi, 40;1, thinks he was there because of a fly in Par’oh’s wine; it is easy to imagine the sar ha-mashkim nursing a grudge, sure it had been beyond his control.]

Once Par’oh needs a dream-interpreter, he realizes he was in jail to further Gd’s plan [as a matter of divine providence], to connect Par’oh with Yosef. Step one, the sar ha-mashkim recognized his having encountered a man skilled at reading dreams was purposeful, to prepare him for this moment. He already credits the sar ha-mashkim with more faith in Gd than I would have thought.

Second, he says the sar ha-mashkim now also realizes he was in the wrong, because Gd would not have had him jailed unless he deserved it. I could have imagined viewing Gd’s plan as important enough to justify jailing someone innocent for a few years, or at least that the sar ha-mashkim would say that.

Not according to Meshech Hochmah. The realization his troubles were Heaven-sent told him he must have been at fault, in ways he had denied until that point.

Compassion for the Non-Compassionate

Meshech Hochmah thinks the brothers had a similar moment of realization, confronted with past wrongs in a new way, they too coming to see them in a new and fuller light. On their first trip to Egypt, Yosef threatens to keep all of them there until Binyamin is brought, and then relents, agrees to keep only one of them, 42;19.

Meshech Hochmah notes Yerushalmi Terumot 8;4 requires Jews to refuse a demand to hand over one of their group to be killed, despite the real threat they would all be put to death, with only two exceptions: the ones leveling the threat (non-Jews, gangsters, etc.) named their intended victim [and, according to Resh Lakish, only if the named person was already liable for the death penalty], or one of their group volunteered.

Transferred here, the brothers should have told Yosef they were not willing to hand one brother to be held in prison [he assumes the rule about handing over applies equally to prison; there’s room to wonder]. Their thinking along those lines made them realize how wrong they had been to Yosef. They were prepared to stand up to this Egyptian, to have them all stay in prison so as not to choose one of them to give up, yet they had themselves thrown Yosef in a pit. Seeing how they could now easily summon that emotion for a brother, an emotion they were supposed to have for any fellow Jew, they recognized their failure to have it affect their interaction with Yosef.

(Meshech Hochmah says Yosef’s hearing their recognition of guilt was what led him to alleviate their dilemma by himself singling out Shimon, a situation where R. Yohanan does allow yielding to the pressure of the other, to save the rest of the group.)

Full Adulthood and Punishment

Three verses later, Reuven adds to their guilt, reminding them he had told them not to sin regarding the boy. Again invoking a Yerushalmi, this time from BikkurimMeshech Hochmah reminds us of the tradition Heaven only punishes for sins committed once one has reached the age of twenty. Had they remembered that, they might not have acted towards Yosef as they had.

[He takes the idea for granted; I feel the need to note it suggests the Gemara already had some conception of adolescence, a time when a child has reached majority in many ways, enough to be obligated in mitzvot and a full adult for human courts’ purposes, but is not done maturing, to the extent Gd holds him/her fully liable for failings. Note also that this idea does not offer a different age for women. Also, just interesting, Meshech Hochmah assumes we follow that Yerushalmi, as do many others, but I once saw a responsum of Tzitz Eliezer who questioned that certainty.]

Judging the Now or the Future

Further, human justice sometimes punishes based on its expectations of the future, such as with ben sorer u-moreh, a young teenage boy who has given his parents and the community sufficient reason to be sure he is headed for a life of serious crime, or a ba ba-mahteret, a thief who breaks into a home, giving reason to believe s/he is willing to kill the homeowner in the face of resistance. In both cases, tradition understood the Torah to have allowed punishing the person al shem sofo, because of our right to be confident about what the future holds for this miscreant.

[Meshech Hochmah does not mention the view ben sorer u-moreh never happened in practice, nor that the homeowner is allowed to kill the burglar, not required to. While the Gemara certainly sees these as cases where expectations of the person’s future condition our reaction, it does not quite mean human justice looks at a person’s future in general, the point he is using it for here.]

In contrast, tradition thought divine justice refrained from doing that, as Rosh Ha-Shanah 16b says of Gd’s saving Yishma’el when Hagar and he were lost in the desert. Bereshit 21;17 says Gd heard the boy’s cries ba-asher hu sham, from where he was, a phrase the Gemara read to mean Gd chose to ignore Yishma’el’s descendants’ future as antagonists, who made the Jews’ exile worse. Divine justice looks at now.

Bringing the contrast back to the brothers, another tradition had it that the brothers decided to kill Yosef, 37;18, because they deemed him a rodef, someone chasing after them to hurt them [by telling Ya’akov about their misdeeds, I believe; I had thought this was a very old idea, but a brief search did not show it before the sixteenth century Sforno].

When Reuven urged them not to sin, Meshech Hochmah’ reads him to have made the argument Yosef was not currently seeking to hurt them, was still a minor as far as Heavenly punishment was concerned, and they should follow the Heavenly example and spare him. He further claimed his view was proven when they threw him in a pit full of vipers and he was unharmed. If Heaven was not interested in punishing him, Reuven had said, they should adopt the same standard.

Judging Like Heaven or Like People

[I need to make his assumptions explicit. First, he thinks Heaven’s decision not to punish before the age of twenty is a higher ideal, reasonable although not ineluctable. I have more trouble with his assumption human courts should strive for that standard, when they in fact are required to judge according to human standards. Were Yosef to have deserved death in a human court, that court would not have the right to forego the punishment because of the tradition about the age at which the divine court punishes.

Perhaps that is why he inserted the rodef part of the question, where the pursuer is killed to avert his intended crime. However, the rodef usually will commit the crime in the immediate future, where Yosef would at most hurt the brothers’ position with their father over time. For Meshech Hochmah, none of these distinctions matter, apparently, because he understands Reuven to be telling them they should have acted according to Gd’s standards, not people’s.]

The sobering lesson from all three comments is how long it can take us to see our lives in their truest light. The sar ha-mashkim spent years thinking he had been wronged, only to have Gd’s plan reveal he must have deserved what had happened to him, the brothers did not realize their lack of needed compassion until they saw themselves having it for their other brothers, and more did not accept the faultiness of their justification for how they handled Yosef until Reuven reminded them of contrasts between human and divine justice.

About Gidon Rothstein

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