Early on in his laws of repentance, Maimonides gives us a definition of the highest form of repentance:
What is complete repentance? When we are confronted with a situation in which we previously sinned and could do so again, but this time we desist not out of fear or weakness but because we have repented. An example: a man has sexual relations with a woman in violation of the Torah. Sometime later he finds himself alone with her again in the same place with ardor and virility undiminished. However, this time he departs without the slightest impropriety. Such a person has attained the level of complete repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1; My translation).
Though formulated at least two millennia after the composite text which preserves the Joseph story, Maimonides’ conception of complete repentance is implicit throughout this most artful instance of the biblical narrative. The ordeal to which Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, subjects his famine-stricken brothers when they come to purchase food, is wholly designed to define their character. Are they still consumed by jealousy of Rachel’s last remaining son, Benjamin? Are they still capable of spurning the pleas of a terrified brother (42:21)? Or, have grief and pain filled their hearts with remorse? We have no idea how Joseph might have reacted had his brothers proved unrepentant. What we do have is an intricate psychological drama of subtlety and intensity whose outcome conforms with Maimonides’ stipulations.
The plan which Joseph devises fitfully (not having anticipated his brothers’ appearance) seeks to create a set of circumstances in which his brothers could choose to eliminate Benjamin with impunity. It was exactly such circumstances years before that enabled them to act on their impulses to get rid of Joseph. By the end of the plot, Joseph has forced Benjamin to be brought to Egypt and to be implicated in the theft of the silver goblet by which Joseph divines the future. How easy would it have been for the brothers to submit silently? Benjamin had been caught red-handed! To leave him behind in perpetual slavery would have been a fate that cleared them of all suspicion.
At first, though, the brothers are incredulous of the charge of having stolen the goblet. It makes no sense. In an act of scrupulous honesty, they had tried to return the money inexplicably placed in their bags on their first trip to Egypt. Convinced of their innocence, they declare: “Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, shall become slaves to my lord (44:9)”. But Joseph is intent only on punishing the culprit; the others will go free.
I wish, for the moment, to focus on the purchase price which Joseph on both trips concealed in the bags of his brothers, thus making the provisions cost-free. Was this merely an unspoken gesture of goodwill toward his family? In a highly wrought narrative, it is unlikely that the detail of such weight does not carry a deeper meaning. What this could be is incisively suggested by a poetic rendition of our story by Simeon, the priest, be rabbi Megas, who lived in the land of Israel in the century before its conquest by the Arabs in 636. Were it not for the inexhaustible riches of the Cairo Geniza, brought largely to the West by Solomon Schechter in 1897, Megas would still be unknown to the world of Jewish scholarship. Today, he is recognized as one of the earliest of the Hebrew liturgical poets who worked in the ebullient culture of Byzantine Palestine turning midrash into poetry for the synagogue. Accordingly, their piyyutim (liturgical poems) are rife with biblical commentary.
In his telescopic reconceptualization of the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers, Megas imagines the latter as contrite. Joseph’s accusation that they are spies throws them into shock. They immediately remind each other of their missing “friend [and] brother,” terms redolent with affection and remorse. When Joseph then charges them with lusting after his magic goblet, they vigorously protest their innocence. A deviation from the biblical text accentuates their self-confidence: “Let he who has stolen it be seized as a slave!”
Thereafter they search their bags only to discover it in Benjamin’s. At this juncture, however, they actually suspect him of the theft. After all, like mother like son. As Rachel stole Laban’s household idols (31:19), so Benjamin stole the goblet. Megas even imagines the brothers asking themselves how could one so unworthy be the apple of his father’s eye?
What stops them cold from pursuing this critical line of thought is the money in their bags. Megas deftly induces the brothers to realize that the goblet and the money come from the same source. Someone is engineering Benjamin’s entanglement. Had the money been omitted from the story, the brothers might well have persisted in their belief that Benjamin was indeed guilty. But just as they were not responsible for the money in their bags, so Benjamin did not hide the goblet in his bag. In Megas’ retelling, the brothers still harbor some resentment toward Benjamin, their preferred brother. Joseph expected as much. To prevent them from indulging that resentment and accepting the charge of theft at face value, Joseph had the money they spent on food hidden in their bags (Shulamit Elizur, Shirah shel Parashah, Jerusalem: 1999, 77-83).
Construed in this fashion, the story emerges as a striking instance of Maimonides’ articulation of complete repentance. The brothers remain conflicted, contrite over their abuse of Joseph, yet resentful of Benjamin. What has changed is their ability to control their emotions. For both the author of the Joseph saga and Maimonides, the ideal is not impossible. We are expected to overcome our illicit feelings toward others, not eradicate them. It is not for us to alter human nature, just to get better at mastering it.