The whole story of the brothers selling Yosef begs one big question – Did Yosef ever forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery?
The answer is no. Yosef said to them, “You intended it for evil, HaShem intended it for good.” But Yosef did not forgive his brothers.
Yosef didn’t forgive them because he couldn’t – until they initiated making shalom by apologizing and asking for forgiveness.
Notably, the brothers, led by Yehuda, never apologized to Yosef. They never said. . .
“We are so sorry Yosef, we were wrong. We made the wrong psak about you and hurt you very, very badly. We got really carried away with ourselves, we were so jealous of you. We wrongfully accused you of wanting to lord over us. We wrongfully accused you of not acting for the sake of heaven.
We mistakenly thought you threatened our status as sons of Jacob. We didn’t talk to father about it, and we didn’t make the first step to making peace as the older brothers should. In the end, we ruthlessly threw you in a pit and sold you to Arabs, where you could have been killed, tortured, or raped.
Please, please, Yosef, we apologize. There is no excuse for what we did. We so sorry. We were so wrong. Please, forgive us.
And I, Yehuda, personally, was the root cause of all this mess. I had no right to participate in a beit din (court) to decide this issue about you. I was nogeah b’dvar (biased) because I have a stake in the matter inasmuch as I believe the crown is mine. I acted contrary to halacha for participating in the impromptu din Torah with my brothers. Halacha required me – at a minimum – to recuse myself because of my self-interest. And we poskened the shiloh without the participation, advice, input, or halachic consideration of our Rabbi and Av Beit Din, Yaakov.
We wrongfully caused you so much pain and suffering.
For everything Yosef, I’m sorry.“
These two words – I’m sorry – are the keys to redemption. Ultimately, Yehudah’s and the brothers’ failure to apologize to Yosef prevented Yosef from being able to forgive them. Had Yosef forgiven prior to Yehudah and the brothers doing complete and proper tshuva by admitting their mistake and apologizing for it, all would have been lost. The core lesson of the importance of admitting mistakes and apologizing for them without excuses would’ve remained unlearned forever – and, at the deepest level – the ultimate redemption barred forever.
The brothers failure to apologize to Yosef had far reaching ramifications. Our Sages teach us that the Ten Martyrs were murdered as an atonement for the brothers’ sin of selling Yosef. Had the brothers apologized and Yosef then forgiven, according the laws of tshuva the entire slate would have been wiped clean, and no Ten Martyrs.
This profound failure to apologize still haunts us today, as many Torah leaders are simply incapable of admitting and apologizing for serious mistakes in halachic or interpersonal judgments. These mistakes, and the drastic efforts to rationalize them or cover them up, metastasize into an underlying cultural sinat hinam (baseless hatred) that steamrolls the weak and innocent in our communities, and perpetuates our bitter exile.
If our Torah leaders rectify the sin of the brothers and embrace these two words – “I’m sorry” – I believe Moshiach would come speedily in our days.
After bouncing this vort off the local Orthodox Rabbis, here is an addendum. Its a reply to a friend of mine who asked for clarification off-line. . .
Rabbenu Bachyah expressly opines that Yosef did not forgive his brothers, and he connects it to the death of the 10 Martyrs.
Rabbenu Bachya states – different than me – that the brothers did ask for forgiveness via the line that “Yaakov says to forgive their sin, etc.” And Yosef refused.
However, R. Bachyah’s explanation begs a very big question – Why didn’t Yosef forgive? R. Bachyah does not answer this screaming bomba kasha.
I opine, and differ with R. Bachyah (alavi I could speak to him in person!) – the brothers never did apologize sincerely for what they did. Read Vayehi 50:15-17. The Torah clearly states that the brothers were afraid of being “repaid” for all their evil, and thus they concocted a story that Yaakov told Yosef to to forgive them.
This begs the question – if at the time Yaakov was alive, Yosef had lost his power and position, and no longer had the means to “repay” the brothers after Yaakov’s death, would the brothers have made this awkward attempt to seek “forgiveness”? According to the svorah that they were merely seeking to avoid retribution, the answer perforce must be no. Thus, the ersatz apology they did make was insincere.
And by putting the works in Yaakov’s mouth, rather than their own, this further shows the apology was insincere, and at best motivated by fear not love. Last time I checked, on Yom Kippur we don’t say, “HaShem, my Rabbi gave me orders to say to you, please, forgive the deed of that man for he has done evil.” We say, I erred, I sinned, I rebelled. And according to many poskim, l’hathila we then admit our sin in detail.
We don’t see that here, at all.
And that’s why Yosef could not forgive them. If he forgave them here, they never would have learned the lesson that there is no excuse for selling your brother to the Arabs because you suspect them of heresy (which is what the essence of the brothers tyyna).
Believe me, I’ve been bouncing my vort off some of the local Rabbis – you’d be amazed at how convoluted folks will get to make excuses for and justify the brothers’ conduct. Look, I’m no big shot, but my goodness people – they sold him to Arabs!! And for this sin the 10 Martyrs suffered terrible deaths!! What they did was wrong, wrong, wrong!
And so long as folks continue to make excuses for throwing innocent Jews under the bus, we’ll continue to be stuck in this bitter exile.