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Covenant & Conversation

Vayechi (5768) – The Future of the Past


It is the scene that brings the Book of Bereishith to a close.

Years before, Joseph had forgiven his brothers for selling him into slavery (“Now, do not worry or feel guilty because you sold me. Look: G-d has sent me ahead of you to save lives” ). Evidently, though, they only half believed him. Could he really forgive an act of abandonment that had altered the whole course of his life? Their feelings of guilt had not gone away, and came back to haunt them when Jacob died.

It seems clear from the earlier story of Esau that sons were not allowed to take revenge in the lifetime of their father. Esau says, “The days of mourning for my father will be here soon. I will then be able to kill my brother Jacob” . That is the possibility the brothers contemplate in the case of Joseph. They fear that he may want to take revenge but has waited until the death of Jacob. They are anxious that his words of forgiveness in the past may not have been sincere. He may simply have been biding his time, waiting for the appropriate moment (as later happened in the case of Amnon and Absolom).

After Jacob’s death, the brothers come to Joseph and say, “Before he died, your father gave us final instructions. He said, ‘This is what you must say to Joseph: Forgive the spiteful deed and the sin your brothers committed when they did evil to you’” .

The sages realised that this was not true. Had it been true, there would be some reference to it in the narrative. This therefore became one of the texts from which the sages derived the rule, “It is permitted to tell a lie for the sake of peace.” Yet Joseph takes their words seriously – not because he believes them, but because the very fact that they said it means that they are still feeling anxious and guilty. His response is majestic in its generosity:

“Don’t be afraid,” said Joseph, “Am I in place of G-d? You intended to harm me but G-d intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”.

The significance of this speech in the context of Bereishith as a whole is simple and profound. A continuing theme of the book is sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The outcome of these conflicts charts a progression. The first culminates in fratricide, the second in separation, the third in relative goodwill (Esau and Jacob eventually meet, embrace and go their separate ways). Joseph, however, lifts the drama to new heights. He forgives. He heals where the brothers harmed. He answers hate with love.

This outcome is essential to the biblical drama of redemption. If brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive? Only now, with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, can the story move on to the birth of Israel as a nation, passing from the crucible of slavery to the constitution of freedom as a people under the sovereignty of G-d.

Yet there is something more, and different, at stake in Joseph’s remark, and it is this I wish to explore. It concerns the most paradoxical of all rabbinic statements about teshuvah.

One of the most colourful characters of the Talmud was the third century sage known as Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish was originally a highway robber and gladiator. Tradition reports that he once saw the great scholar Rabbi Jochanan bathing in the Jordan and complimented him on his appearance (Rabbi Jochanan was famed for his handsome appearance). Rabbi Jochanan, in turn, was impressed by Resh Lakish’s obvious strength. “Your strength,” he said, “should be devoted to Torah.” “Your beauty,” replied Resh Lakish, “should be devoted to women.” “I have a sister,” said Rabbi Jochanan, “who is even more beautiful than I am. If you repent, I will make sure that she becomes your wife.” Resh Lakish repented and became Rabbi Jochanan’s disciple and colleague.

The Talmud reports that, despite relinquishing his earlier life, he occasionally used his physical strength to good ends. On one occasion he rescued a rabbinic colleague, Rav Imi, who was being held captive by a group of kidnappers. Another time, he went into a town where Rabbi Jochanan had been robbed and brought back his stolen possessions. But he is best known as one of the most famous of baalei teshuvah, penitents, of the talmudic era. Perhaps speaking from his own experience, he coined several aphorisms about teshuvah, two of which are reported in the tractate of Yoma (86b):

Resh Lakish said: Great is repentance, because through it deliberate sins are accounted as unintentional, as it is said (Hosea 14: 2), “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.” “Iniquity” means a deliberate sin, yet the prophet calls it “stumbling” [i.e. unintentional]. Resh Lakish also said: Great is repentance, because through it deliberate sins are accounted as though they were merits, as it is said (Ezekiel 33: 19), “When the wicked man turns from his wickedness and does what is lawful and right, he shall live thereby.”

The first of these statements makes sense. When we acknowledge our wrongs, we signal that we regret having done them. We retrospectively dissociate ourselves from them. The acts remain, but the intent does not. To that extent we turn them from deliberate sins to acts that we now wish we had not done.

The second statement, by contrast, is virtually unintelligible. By signalling our remorse, we at best declare that (now, on reflection) we did not mean to do what we did. We cancel the intention. What we cannot do is cancel the deed. It has been done. It is part of the past. It cannot be changed. How then can deliberate sins be turned into merits, in other words, into good deeds?

Nor does Resh Lakish’s quotation from Ezekiel prove his point. If anything, it proves the opposite. The prophet is speaking about a person who, having undergone repentance, now does good instead of evil – and it is because of his good deeds, not his earlier evil ones, that “he shall live.” What the verse shows is that good deeds can overcome a previous history of wrongdoing, not that they can turn wrong into right, bad into good, deliberate sins into merits.

I have hinted in the previous Covenant and Conversation, however, that the source of many of the Talmud’s principles of teshuvah are not derived from the prooftexts cited by the Talmud itself, but from the story of Joseph and his brothers – the key biblical narrative of teshuvah. The reason the sages did not cite this as their source is twofold: first, the Joseph story is narrative, not law; second, it precedes the covenant at Mount Sinai, and therefore only serves as a valid precedent if some confirmation can be found in the post-Mosaic literature.

I believe the same is true for Resh Lakish’s statement about sins and merits. Its source is precisely the words Joseph speaks to his brothers in the last chapter of Bereishith: “You intended to harm me but G-d intended it for good.” This is exactly what Resh Lakish argued. The brothers committed a deliberate sin by selling Joseph into slavery. But they (or at least Judah, the instigator of the decision to sell Joseph) had done teshuvah. The result was that — through Divine providence — it was now reckoned “for good.” Not only is this the source of Resh Lakish’s principle, but it also enables us to understand what it means.

Any act we perform has multiple consequences, some good, some bad. When we intend evil, the bad consequences are attributed to us because that is what we sought to achieve. The good consequences are not: they are mere by-products, happenstance, unintended outcomes.

Thus, in the case of Joseph, many things happened once he had been brought to Egypt. He became master of Potiphar’s household, a prison administrator, an interpreter of dreams. Later he became second-in-command of Egypt, overseer of its economy, and the man who saved the country from ruin during the years of famine. None of these consequences could be attributed to his brothers, even though they would not have happened had they not done as they did. The reason is that they neither foresaw nor intended this set of outcomes. They meant to sell him as a slave, and that is what they did.

However, once they had undergone complete repentance, their original intent was cancelled out. It was now possible to see the good, as well as the bad, consequences of their act – and to attribute the former to them, since the meaning of their act is no longer defined by what they originally intended but by what part they played in a providential drama whose outcome was only now fully apparent in retrospect. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony, the good they did would live after them; the bad was interred with the past. That is how, through repentance, deliberate sins are accounted as merits, or as Joseph put it: “You intended to harm me, but G-d intended it for good.” This is a hugely significant idea, for it means that by a change of heart we can redeem the past.

This still sounds paradoxical. We tend to take for granted the idea of the asymmetry of time. The future is open, but the past is closed. Before us lie a series of paths: which we take depends upon our choice. Behind us lies the history of our previous decisions, none of which we can undo. We cannot go back in time. That is a logical impossibility. We can affect what is yet to be; but, in the words of the sages, “What has been, has been,” 7 and we cannot alter it. With or without repentance, the past is surely immutable. All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth. The revolutionary idea behind Joseph’s and Resh Lakish’s words is that there are two concepts of the past. The first is what happened. The second is the significance, the meaning, of what happened.

In ancient Israel a new concept of time was born. This did more than change the history of the West; in a sense, it created it. Until Tenakh [the Hebrew Bible], time was generally conceived as a series of eternal recurrences, endlessly repeating a pattern that belonged to the immutable structure of the universe. The seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – and the lifecycle – birth, growth, decline and death – were a reiterated sequence in which nothing fundamentally changed. This is variously called cyclical, or cosmological, or mythic time. There is a powerful example of it in Tenakh itself, in the book of Ecclesiastes:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises . . .
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again . . .
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

This is a deeply conservative philosophy. It justifies the status quo. Inequalities are seen as written into the structure of the universe. All attempts to change society are destined to fail. People are what they are, and the world is what it is always been. At best this view leads to resignation, at worst to despair. There is no ultimate meaning in history. As the author of Ecclesiastes says:

Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

The Jewish understanding of time was utterly revolutionary. For the first time people began to understand that G-d had created the universe in freedom, and by making man in His image, He endowed him too with freedom. If so, he might be different tomorrow from what he was today, and if he could change himself, he could begin to change the world. Time was an arena of change. With this, the concept of history (as opposed to myth) was born.

Many great thinkers have written on this theme, including the historian Arnold Momigliano and the anthropologist Mircea Eliade. Here is how the British historian J. H Plumb puts it in his book, The Death of the Past:

The concept that within the history of mankind itself a process was at work which would mould his future, and lead man to situations totally different from his past, seems to have found its first expression among the Jews . . . With the Jews, the past became . . . an intimate part of destiny and an interpretation of the future . . . The uniqueness of this concept lay in the idea of development. The past was no longer static, a mere store of information, example and events, but dynamic, an unfolding story… This sense of narrative and of unfolding purpose bit deeply into European consciousness.

And what applies to nations, applies also to individuals.

We live life forwards, but we understand it backwards. The simplest example of this is an autobiography. Reading the story of a life, we see how a deprived childhood led to the woman of iron ambition, or the early loss of a parent shaped the man who spent his later years pursuing fame in search of the love he had lost. There is an air of inevitability about such stories, but it is an illusion. The deprived childhood or the loss of a parent might equally have led to a sense of defeat and inadequacy. What we become depends on our choices, and we are (almost) always free to choose this way or that. But what we become shapes the story of our life, and only in hindsight, looking back, do we see the past in context, as part of a tale whose end we now know. In life considered as a narrative, later events change the significance of earlier ones. It was the gift of Judaism to the world to discover time as a narrative.

That was what Resh Lakish knew from his own experience. He had been a highway robber. He might have stayed one. Instead he became a baal teshuvah, and the very characteristics he had acquired in his earlier life – physical strength and courage – he later used to virtuous ends. He knew he could not have done so had he had a different past, a life of study and peace. His sins became merits because in retrospect they were an essential part of the good he eventually did. What had happened (the past as past) did not change, but its significance (the past as part of a narrative of transformation) did.

That too was the profound philosophical-spiritual truth Joseph conveyed to his brothers. By your repentance – he intimated to them – you have changed the story of which you are a part. The harm you intended to do ultimately brought about good. So long as you stayed the people prepared to sell a brother into slavery, none of that good could be attributed to you, but now (through teshuvah) you are different and so too is the story of your life. By your change of heart you have earned the right to be included in a narrative whose ultimate outcome was benign.

We now see the profound overarching structure of the book of Bereishith. It begins with G-d creating the universe in freedom. It ends with the family of Jacob on the brink of creating a new social universe of freedom which begins in slavery but ends in the giving and receiving of the Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty.” Israel is charged with the task of changing the moral vision of mankind, but it can only do so if individual Jews (of whom the forerunners are Jacob’s children) are capable of changing themselves – that ultimate assertion of freedom we call teshuvah. Time then becomes an arena of change in which the future redeems the past and a new concept is born – the idea we call hope.