The parasha this week has Joseph, the vizier of Egypt and newly-self-revealed brother of those who sought to kill him many years ago, sending his brothers back to Canaan to get their father, Jacob. He is not angry with them but sends them on their way by saying,
וַיְשַׁלַּ֜ח אֶת־אֶחָ֝יו וַיֵּלֵ֞כוּ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֭ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֝וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ:
24 So he sent his brothers away, and they departed; and he said to them, “See that you do not become troubled along the way.” (Gen 45:24)
It is a strange statement. Usually when we bid someone goodbye, hoping to see them soon, we would say, ‘have a nice journey,’ ‘come back safe,’ or something like that. But why say ‘don’t be troubled along the way’? Seems like an odd piece of advice.
Rashi says, in a very well-known commentary:
אל תרגזו בדרך. אל תתעסקו בדבר הלכה, ט שלא תרגז עליכם הדרך. דבר אחר אל תפסיעו פסיעה י גסה, והכנסו בחמה לעיר. לפי פשוטו של מקרא יש לומר, לפי שהיו נכלמים, היה דואג שמא יריבו בדרך על דבר מכירתו, להתוכח זה עם זה ולומר, על ידך נמכר, אתה ספרת לשון הרע עליו, וגרמת לנו לשנאתו:
“Do not become troubled on the way: (I offer three explanations) 1) Do not become involved in matters of Jewish law so deeply that the trip should not become a source of agtitation for you. 2) Alternatively, do not take long steps and enter the city while it is still daytime. 3) But the way I would really understand the verse is according to its simple meaning which, (based on the root of the wordתרגזו – which is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘troubled’) is that it can be said that they were ashamed for he (Joseph) was worried lest ehy quarrel on the way over the matter of his sale by disputing with each other and saying, ‘He was sold because of you’ or ‘You were the one who spoke poorly of him.’”
It is a clever insight and one of the reasons we find it so compelling is that Rashi understand human nature. When as individuals or groups we do something wrong and have not been caught we usually repress it and justify what we have done by saying that so-and-so deserved what they got or ‘I didn’t do anything wrong since I was only a bystander. It was the other guy that stole the money.’ The human mind is masterful at reducing congnitive dissonance – the conflict between what is and what we wish it was. It all works pretty well. The human mind has the survival quality to remove any distasteful details it finds inconvenient to live with. (The film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ about global warming is about both global warming but is also an insight into human psychology. The real ‘inconvenience’ is that the truth gets in the way so it is imperative to repress it so that another priority may be given a better chance at success.) As far as we know, only humans do this or even can do this.
Ahh, but then, more often than not, the truth comes back. Sigmund Freud made a living out of this with his early discoveries of repressed memories that often involved a trauma simply too difficult to remember and the repression itself was forgotten. We may be finished with the past, but the past is not always finished with us. Sooner or later, externally or internally, the truth often finds its way back home. Joseph’s brothers learned this when they had to go back to a dying Jacob and tell him that the son he lost and whom they said was ‘devoured by wild beasts’ was the VP of Egypt and he wants to take them all there. You can bet they were worried that, before Jacob died, he would know the truth about what his sons did to Joseph. No wonder they were shaking in their sandals! And, no wonder Joseph warned them to be neither troubled, worried, or quarrelsome on the way, all valid uses of the word תרגזו
This very common ‘truth emergence’ often leads to what appear to be acts of deep contrition. When Joseph’s brother were revealing the truth to Jacob, did they really feel contrite about what they had done to both Jacob and Joseph or were they really just sorry that they got caught? It seems to be the case that whenever the convict apologizes to the hurt party, he is apologizing to get a lighter sentence or he is really saying that he is sorry he got caught. Apologies after capture have limited value.
This is the quandry Joseph’s brothers found themselves in. And it is a quandry that we find ourselves in, too, from time to time. If we have done wrong, do we correct it even if it puts us in jeopardy of some type or do we wait until we are caught, close our eyes and hope for the best? The truly moral ethical dilemmas can be argued both ways. But luckily we don’t have such difficult choices to make that often. Rather our sins are small and often insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But are they not still sins? Is theft not theft? Is lashon harah – speaking badly of someone – still not lashon harah even if it’s true? Is larceny not larceny even if it done on a tiny scale? Our tradition says a sin is a sin and that the door for repentance is always open before you get caught. After we get caught the remorse-believablity index drops. Perhaps that is why the great tzaddikim and Sages stayed as far as they could from even the slightest sin for to know the sin and hide it was simply a corrosion of the soul. It is a lesson worth learning and relearning every day.