There was no convincing the Egyptian viceroy. Jacob’s sons kept
protesting that they had come to Egypt in all innocence to buy grain for
their starving families, but the hostile viceroy would have none of it.
They were evil spies, he insisted, and he had them arrested and thrown
into the dungeon. Only one would be allowed to return home to bring
evidence of their innocence, while the others would languish in prison.
Three days later, however, the viceroy apparently has a change of
heart. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, he has the brothers
brought before him, and he tells them that, because he fears the Lord,
he will modify his earlier decree. Instead of keeping them all
incarcerated until their innocence is established, he will keep only one
and allow the rest to return home with food for their hungry families.
After the viceroy makes his announcement, the Torah adds, “And
so they did.” But what was it that they did? The Torah does not specify.
Instead, the Torah goes on to record their words of self-recrimination for
having sold their brother Joseph into slavery. “We are indeed guilty of
mistreating our brother,” they say. “We saw his extreme distress when
he pleaded with us, but we did not listen to him. That is why we are
being subjected to this misfortune.” But the mystery remains. What was
it that they did as soon as the viceroy had spoken?
Let us consider for a moment. Twenty-two years have gone by
since that fateful day when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Why
do they finally acknowledge their guilt at this particular moment?
The commentators explain that the unexpected actions of the
viceroy prompted them to reevaluate their own deeds so many years
before. The viceroy ruled Egypt with the iron hand of an autocratic
despot. He answered to no one except for Pharaoh, who gave him
virtual carte blanche to do as he pleased. When he decrees that all the
brothers would be locked up until they proved their innocence, it is
inconceivable that he would suddenly have a change of heart. Why
should he? Clearly, their fate is sealed.
And yet, wonder of wonders, the viceroy does indeed have a
change of heart. What could this mean?
The brothers see in this a clear message from Heaven. A person
must always keep an open mind and not feel locked into his original
positions. No matter what, he must always maintain an objective
perspective. If he thinks he may have made an error, he should correct
it, though his ego may suffer somewhat. If even the arrogant and
haughty viceroy had changed his mind of his own accord, surely
Jacob’s sons could do no less.
Originally, they had agreed among themselves that Joseph
deserved to die, or at least be sold into slavery, for his supposed
transgressions. Once they had arrived at this decision, they had been
immovable, and all Joseph’s pleas for mercy had fallen on deaf ears.
But now they took their example from the viceroy who had shown the
courage to reexamine his earlier decision. “And so they did.” They, too,
reexamined their earlier actions and found them wanting.
A married couple sought the help of a great sage.
“My husband is insufferable,” the wife complained.
“I’m only reacting to her nastiness,” he retorted.
“Think carefully,” said the sage. “When did this all begin?”
“About a week ago,” said the wife, “I baked a very fancy cake, and
he forgot to take it out of the oven. All that work for nothing!”
“I didn’t forget,” protested her husband. “The message wasn’t
“Now wait a minute, young man,” said the sage. “She did leave you
a message, didn’t she? But you couldn’t admit that you made a mistake,
so you defended yourself with all your might.”
The husband nodded sheepishly.
“Well then,” said the sage, “I think we can resolve all your
problems. Just admit you were at fault and apologize. I’m sure she will
In our own lives, we are constantly presented with situations that
demand of us that we take a stand one way or the other. And once we
have taken this stand, it sometimes takes on a life of its own. Once we
have invested our honor and credibility in a particular position, we
sometimes find ourselves going to great lengths to defend the
indefensible. However, if we keep an open mind, if we are honest with
ourselves and consider the possibility that we may have erred, we will
discover that the ultimate honor always lies in embracing the truth and
doing what is right.