We all have regrets — past actions that we wish we could undo. Some relate to small decisions; others concern monumental mistakes. But we naturally move on and attempt to bury bitter memories. Then, in a moment of crisis, we can suddenly be reminded of a past shortcoming.
More than any biblical account, the story of Yosef and his brothers speaks to feelings of needing to repair past wrongdoings. In this week’s portion, Yosef’s 10 brothers travel to Egypt to purchase grain during the years of famine. The youngest, Binyamin, stays home, because his father fears for his safety. Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. To test them, he accuses them of being spies and insists that they bring Binyamin to prove that they are who they say. He then imprisons Shimon as a hostage.
In the midst of this pending crisis, the brothers flash back to their past sin, remarking to each other, “Indeed, we are guilty (for how we treated our brother Yosef, years ago), that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, yet we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.”
(Their statement expresses a common thought. Some spiritual systems may refer to it as “bad karma” — like energy from negative actions returning in retribution — or as natural consequences. From a Jewish perspective, these dire situations are not simply pay-back or punishment, but a heavenly communication, an aid or a trigger to promote introspection and repair.)
Seeing his brother’s distress, Reuven, the oldest, answers: “Didn’t I warn you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen…”
The commentaries ask: What’s the intention and benefit behind his reprimand? Seeing someone in distress, broken because of past mistakes, the appropriate response is surely to comfort — not to add pain and increase their burden. This advice especially applies to Reuven, the firstborn and leader. (Furthermore, his language — “Didn’t I warn you…” — appears as if Reuven stresses his own merit.) Why, when the brothers already feel guilt and admit their mistake, would he contrast his virtue with their sin?
Choice and change
In order to answer this, let’s depart from this scene to examine an intriguing (and instructive) path taken by Maimonides when organizing his famous Mishneh Torah, a masterpiece of a thousand chapters which categorize and outline the entire body of mitzvahs: His opening volume — the Book of Knowledge — discusses those fundamental principles of our tradition, such the first of the Ten Commandments, understanding the unity of God, etc.
At the conclusion of this volume, he deals with the pervading mitzvah of teshuvah. After explaining many details — the obligation of correcting transgressions, the parameters of repentance, the window in time, possible barriers — the fifth chapter continues by stating that “Free will is granted to all people…From the Most High, neither evil nor good come forth. Accordingly, it is the wrongdoer alone who causes his loss…”
An obvious query arises in Maimonides’ positioning: Free choice is a giant tenet in Torah, central to all mitzvahs, and should seemingly be expounded at the onset of the volume — not at the end, during the subject of teshuvah (only one of the many mitzvahs). But his order provides us with an underlying lesson. More than any command, teshuvah is inherently linked to free choice: In the absence of free will, the notion of “commandments” (and any corresponding reward and punishment) is meaningless.
Theoretically, a world without true free will could exist, where humans function like animals, bound to follow their nature, unable to bend or transform it. In this scenario, the internal mechanism of choice would be missing, yet the external mitzvah (the deed) may still be accomplished — like a well-trained dog following his master’s whistle with instinctive fidelity, or an angel executing a divine mission to aid or destroy.
Teshuvah, which primarily rests within the heart, is different: The existence and exercise of free choice directly concerns its accomplishment; looking back, if a person does not feel accountable, there’s no space for sincere regret. Moving forward, if someone is unable to change, there’s no room for growth — no teshuvah.
Healthy regret that leads to change (teshuvah) can be prompted in two general ways: a) through external circumstances where, for example, suffering softens the heart and pushes a person to change, or b) through firm resolution stemming from one’s own initiative. Complete teshuvah, the purest form, is when that inner resolve is free, untied to any outside influence such as fear, or lesser temptation to go astray — since there’s no substantial assurance of how one will respond if the original scenario arises again.
Free choice in both directions
On a deeper level, not only are teshuvah and free choice interdependent regarding the ability to act differently in the future, but it also becomes necessary to recognize that past mistakes were performed with free choice.
Wholehearted change comes through careful self-reflection of previous choices, sifting through the layers of thoughts and feelings the behavior. During that process, it is easy to acknowledge the outcome — that you erred in action. Nevertheless, you may reason that circumstances subtly led to the slip — based on your character at the time, or what you were going through, or how certain internal and external conditions pushed you in one direction — that it was unavoidable. While true on one level, this mentality prevents you from fully recognizing it, owning it and leaving it. So notwithstanding improved behavior, the internal repair is incomplete.
A complete rectification comes from acknowledging that even if, at first glance, it appears that we were not completely at fault, we still possessed the strength to overcome all obstacles to choosing the good path.
A different dialogue
Returning to our story, the brothers’ initial expression of regret seemed to result from their stressful circumstance and anguish — “therefore this has come upon us.” And when regret results from a side reason, such as suffering, the compulsion to change may not stem from the deepest force inside the person, from the person’s own effort to change their ways, where the intent is truly to reconnect and come closer.
In order to instruct his brothers how to remove all obstacles, to wash away any remnants of their mistreatment, Reuven reminded them of the original context: “Didn’t I tell you…” He was not chastising, but communicating the best path of teshuva: to travel back to your original mindset, get to the root cause and examine why, when “I told you… you didn’t listen.” As for the anguish that has come your way, that’s only the superficial layer.
The unlimited power of choice (wherein nothing can hold you back) that is gifted to each soul expresses itself in the effort of teshuvah — when someone feels distant from their true potential, estranged from anything holy, stuck in a space where according to all natural tendencies it seems impossible to connect. Nevertheless, the widespread message from above is that activating the power of free choice enables a person to overcome any internal barriers to growth and to renew themselves by moving closer to God — the direct opposite movement which dominated them at the time of their fall.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the non-profit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit www.maayanchai.org.