| “Why are you looking at yourselves?” (Genesis 42:1) Kislev 29, 5782/December 3, 2021 |
“Yaakov saw that there was grain being sold in Egypt; so Yaakov said to his sons, “Why are you looking at yourselves?” (Genesis 42:1)
Yosef, upon the merit of his dream interpretation ability, which he attributes solely to G-d, has been taken out of prison by Pharaoh and made viceroy to the most powerful man on earth: “And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “I am Pharaoh, and besides you, no one may lift his hand or his foot in the entire land of Egypt.” (ibid 41:44)
A famine is raging throughout the land and the ten older sons of Yaakov, the very sons who sold Yosef into slavery so many years earlier, seem to be lost in a stupor. Rather than taking action to attain life sustaining food, they are both passive and impassive, neither coming up with a plan nor evincing any sign of concern over the impending threat to their lives or the life of the father Yaakov.
Yaakov, for his part, despite being in a deep state of mourning for his lost son Yosef, whose blood stained tunic his sons presented to him some twenty-two years earlier, was not willing to simply “go gentle into that good night” and severely scolded his ten older sons, snapping, “Why are you looking at yourselves?”
“Why are you looking at yourselves?” Or as we might say today, while are you staring at your navels? Wake up! Do something!
“Why are you looking at yourselves?” – in Hebrew – “Lama titra’u” – can literally be understood either as why are you looking at one another, or as why are you looking at yourselves. Why are you looking at one another – do you expect to find a solution by staring at one another? Will you find an answer in your brother’s face, which is staring blankly back at you? Why are you looking at your inner selves – why are you gazing blankly, totally self-absorbed in deep thought when it is action and not contemplation which is needed?
Our sages in trying to understand Yaakov’s cryptic comment, interpreted lama titra’u as “why do you appear satiated,” as if your bellies are full and the larder is overflowing, when the reality is precisely the opposite.
Nor does Yaakov wait for his boys to wake up. He immediately instructs them to go down to Egypt “and buy us some [grain] from there, so that we will live and not die.” (ibid 42:2)
What has come over the sons of Israel? Their father Yaakov was never at a loss for action, always taking the initiative, both his physical and his spiritual survival always being a top priority. Neither was his father Yitzchak, nor his father Avraham ever passive in the face of a famine, each carefully following G-d’s instructions for survival.
But the ten strong sons of Israel are not hearing G-d’s voice. What has gone wrong? The last we heard of the ten boys (now men) was twenty-two years prior, when, in a fit of jealousy and hurt pride they stripped Yosef of his colorful tunic, threw him in a pit with a plan to kill him, went off to eat lunch and returned, only to sell him to a caravan of passing Yishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.
Midrash adds that they used their ill-gained cash to buy for each a pair of shoes.
They had done a terrible deed, acting rashly, and only compounded their crime by deceiving their father as to Yosef’s true fate. Thoughtlessly not anticipating the effect the loss of his favorite son would have on Yaakov, they scramble in vain to try to comfort him, but Yaakov “refused to be consoled.” (ibid 37:35)
Only now did the horror of their action begin to sink in. They thought they could do away with Yosef and just as easily go back to life as it was, without their impetuous little brother, the dreamer, to cramp their space.
But it wasn’t to be. We haven’t heard a word about them since they sold Yosef and lied to Yaakov because their lives ever since have been empty of purpose and void of direction. They are currently staring at one another with one paralyzing thought haunting their conscience: what have we done?
Their crime against their brother has not left them for a single day. Its enormity has crushed their spirits, even to the point where dying of famine no longer moves them to action. At the same time, they are also gazing inward, tortured souls struggling in vain to escape the prison they have placed themselves in.
It is true that immediately following the sale of Yosef, Torah related the events of Yehudah, who, in apparent estrangement from his brothers, befriended a stranger by the name of Hirah.
Perhaps he felt he could put the past behind and start a new life. But tragedy followed Yehudah, his two oldest sons perishing, the victims of G-d’s anger, an anger which perhaps was really directed at Yehudah, who was forced to suffer to loss of not one, but two sons.
But unlike his father Yaakov, who maintained his dignity, even in mourning, Yehudah beds a roadside prostitute, condemns his twice widowed daughter-in-law to death when discovering that she is pregnant, only to rescind the verdict when he discovers that it is he, himself, who is the father.
Yosef, the innocent victim of his brothers’ iniquity, can seemingly do no wrong, but nevertheless finds himself in increasingly desperate situations. He is no less a prisoner of his brothers’ crime than they are. True, he has been taken out of prison and placed in command over all Egypt, but he has been in this position before, first in Potiphar’s house and later in prison and it has never ended well.
Who is to say that his stint as Pharaoh’s second in command won’t end in similar tragedy? There is only one thing that can change the fate of Yosef and his brothers, and it begins to emerge slowly only with Yaakov’s scolding of his sons for their indifference to their fate, and that is teshuvah – repentance and forgiveness.
Teshuvah, and only teshuvah, is the key that can unlock the door that is keeping Yosef and his brothers imprisoned within their injured souls.
The first sparks of teshuvah are kindled when Yosef recognizes his brothers who have come to him to purchase grain. He is motivated by their sudden appearance to somehow reconnect, but the path of teshuvah can at times be tortuous, full of twists and turns.
The brothers initial awakening occurs when, pressed by Yosef to disclose their family history and confront their past, look at one another, (again), saying, “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.” (ibid 42:21)
Teshuvah – repentance and forgiveness, rectification and reconciliation, has begun!
Our sages teach us that even before G-d created the universe, He created teshuvah, for without teshuvah, the G-d given ability to overcome our own crimes and frailties, and to forgive others for their crimes against us, the world cannot exist.
We cannot wake up in the morning nor sleep at night. Life without teshuvah is life in a pit, empty and void of life giving water. It is life in a prison, forgotten by the world at large. Teshuvah is a spiritual force of our existence no less essential than gravity and its counterbalancing forces without which we would be crushed in an instant.
The momentous, life-saving act of repentance and forgiveness that we are witnessing the first stirrings of in parashat Miketz, will ultimately enable Israel to leave the pit of Egypt, arrive united at Sinai, and live as a free people, under G-d, in Israel, today!