In the weekly Torah portions of the past few weeks, we read of the trials and tribulations of Yosef, whose problems compound in episode after episode. He is held captive by his jealous brothers, then sold to a caravan of traders. After being transported to Egypt, he is sold into slavery and later jailed. Nonetheless, through Divine providence, he rises to become ruler of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh. In this week’s Parsha, he comes full circle to be reunited with his brothers and his father in one of the most emotionally charged chapters of the Torah.
Yosef HaTzadik unequivocally forgives his brothers for their crimes against him. He does not harbor the slightest ill feeling toward them, attributing all that he went through to the hand of G-d. Even his seemingly cruel decision to withhold his identity from his brothers and frame Binyamin is, in fact, motivated by his genuine desire to find forgiveness for them. He jails Binyamin to put his brothers in a situation identical to the one they put themselves in years earlier when they abandoned him. By enabling his brothers to return to the scene of their crime, Yosef gives them the opportunity to not repeat their mistakes and to achieve full penance. However, even with Yosef’s total forgiveness and his brothers’ full repentance, the episode of Yosef’s kidnapping manages to come back and haunt the Jewish people.
Toward the end of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, there is a prayer – one of the emotional highlights of the day’s services. It is the story of the Ten Martyrs, which graphically and movingly tells the story of ten great sages of the Mishnaic period (including Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, and Rabbi Elazar) who were brutally, mercilessly put to death at the anti-Semitic whim of the Roman government.
Why were ten sages of Israel chosen to be slaughtered at this time? A lecturer on the history of Anti-Semitism once began by stating, “As long as there have been Jews, there have been anti-Semites; and as long as there have been anti-Semites, there have been theories of Anti- Semitism.” In their book, “Why the Jews?”, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin thoroughly explore the many varied reasons for anti-Semitism.
In our Yom Kippur prayer, “Ayleh Ezkerah,” a rather novel and somewhat ironic explanation is given. The Roman ruler opened up the Book of Shemos to the sedra of Mishpatim, where the law regarding kidnapping is found. He then posed this question to the Sages: ‘What is the law, if a man is found to have kidnapped one of his Jewish brethren and he enslaved him and sold him?”
“The kidnapper is to die,” the Sages replied. The Roman ruler asked, “Then what about your ancestors, who sold their brother Yosef to a caravan of lshmaelites? They were never punished as is required by your own Torah. And so you ten [corresponding to the ten brothers] must accept the heavenly judgment upon yourselves.” These ten martyrs were slaughtered under the pretext of exacting “justice” for a crime committed over sixteen centuries earlier! How utterly preposterous! But then, isn’t all anti-Semitism absurd? Furthermore, isn’t all sinas chinam – senseless hatred – irrational? Looking into the story of Yosef and his brothers, we find that the reason they sold him into slavery was jealousy and sinas chinam – the very same senseless hatred that, the Talmud tells us, caused the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash two thousand years ago. It is that very same senseless hatred that prevents it from being rebuilt today.
We look sadly at the news making headlines around the world and we can’t help but wonder, “When will mankind ever learn?” Then we look at the news that we Jews are making – the pronouncements, the statements, the internal strife, and discord – and we must also ask ourselves “When will we learn?”
Rabbi Ephraim Slepoy
Beth Israel Synagogue, Longmeadow, MA