Mikketz and Hanukkah 5778: Evading Killing Curses and Accepting Responsibility

Parashat Mikketz ends with Joseph’s elaborate ruse to test his half-brothers and see if they will betray Benjamin just as they had betrayed him. He plants his silver divination goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags, as well as the silver payment in all of their bags, just as he had done the first time. Haven’t the brothers been to the rodeo before? Why didn’t they learn to check the saddle bags?

I noticed in this reading that the story of the “stolen” goblet refers back not only to the previous grain-buying mission, but also to an earlier incident. During the flight of Jacob and his double family from Laban’s estate, Laban chases after them and his stolen idols, accusing Jacob of robbery, and eliciting an indignant denial. The two incidents are different in many respects. Joseph plants his goblet to incriminate the innocent Benjamin, whereas Rachel steals her father’s idol. Jacob is clearly testing his brothers. It’s less clear what motivates Rachel to grab the household gods. But the two tales are similar in one important aspect. When Jacob hears Laban’s accusation, he rashly proclaims, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). Not much later he must bury his beloved Rachel by the side of the road. Here in Mikketz, the brothers likewise protest their innocence in stealing Joseph’s goblet, rashly proclaiming, “Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” (Gen. 44:9).

It is ironic that Benjamin, whose mother dies giving birth to him, is cursed in the same way by his own brothers. This time, however, the curse does not stick, presumably because Benjamin is not an intentional thief. He will not die, nor will he be a slave for long. Could he have inspired the story of Harry Potter, a kid spared a killing curse by the love of his dying mother? Probably not—Benjamin is never much more than a prop in his own story. He is the mechanism for his mother’s death, and again the mechanism for proving the moral improvement of his half-brothers. Benjamin is loved and hated, punished and rewarded, but never for himself. He is always a marker for others. It is the guilt of the brothers, their increasingly desperate attempts to avoid culpability, and their final redemption in the form of Judah’s moving speech next week, that captures our attention.

Rabbi Isaac Karo asks why the brothers declare that even those who didn’t steal the goblet should be enslaved. His answer is that the brothers are in effect admitting an ancient guilt—their sale of Joseph. They have been on the run for that terrible deed, but they know that God does not forget. Benjamin may be innocent of both crimes—the sale of Joseph and the theft of the goblet—but he too will be swept up in the sin of his half-brothers. Tough luck, kid.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Berlin goes in the opposite direction. Why should the brothers be enslaved for Benjamin’s alleged theft if they are innocent? His answer refers not to the settling of old scores, but to guilt by association. When one person commits a dreadful crime, their associates are punished simply for being on the scene. Either way, the focus is on the brothers—their innocence here fails to erase their enormous guilt for what came before.

Benjamin suffers from the death of his mother, apparently caused by his father’s curse. He almost suffers his own premature death, again caused by a curse from within the family, and certainly receives a terrible fright. His name is cleared, his neck is spared, and he produces a tribe that will yield a first king of Israel, and host the Temple mount. But the curses from his family leave him a diminished man and tribe.

My take-away from this story is to realize the danger of making rash pronouncements or declaring dire consequences when the facts of a matter are insufficiently known. We often live in a fog of uncertainty, and the temptation to make summary judgments can be very great indeed. Sharp denunciations offer a satisfying thrill, but they can quickly turn embarrassing or worse. They can cause lasting damage to both the person who utters them, and to the target of their denunciation, even if innocent. We ought to check our saddlebags more frequently—examining ourselves for unknown errors, so that like the priest Joshua in our haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, we can stand renewed in clean garments, acting with justice and experiencing the joy envisioned by the prophet—“You will be inviting each other to the shade of vines and fig trees.” (Zecharia 3:10).

בראשית פרק מד, א-יז

(א) וַיְצַ֞ו אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־בֵּיתוֹ֘ לֵאמֹר֒ מַלֵּ֞א אֶת־אַמְתְּחֹ֤ת הָֽאֲנָשִׁים֙ אֹ֔כֶל כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יוּכְל֖וּן שְׂאֵ֑ת וְשִׂ֥ים כֶּֽסֶף־אִ֖ישׁ בְּפִ֥י אַמְתַּחְתּֽוֹ: (ב) וְאֶת־גְּבִיעִ֞י גְּבִ֣יעַ הַכֶּ֗סֶף תָּשִׂים֙ בְּפִי֙ אַמְתַּ֣חַת הַקָּטֹ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת כֶּ֣סֶף שִׁבְר֑וֹ וַיַּ֕עַשׂ כִּדְבַ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר: (ג) הַבֹּ֖קֶר א֑וֹר וְהָאֲנָשִׁ֣ים שֻׁלְּח֔וּ הֵ֖מָּה וַחֲמֹרֵיהֶֽם: (ד) הֵ֠ם יָֽצְא֣וּ אֶת־הָעִיר֘ לֹ֣א הִרְחִיקוּ֒ וְיוֹסֵ֤ף אָמַר֙ לַֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־בֵּית֔וֹ ק֥וּם רְדֹ֖ף אַחֲרֵ֣י הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֑ים וְהִשַּׂגְתָּם֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לָ֛מָּה שִׁלַּמְתֶּ֥ם רָעָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת טוֹבָֽה: (ה) הֲל֣וֹא זֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁתֶּ֤ה אֲדֹנִי֙ בּ֔וֹ וְה֕וּא נַחֵ֥שׁ יְנַחֵ֖שׁ בּ֑וֹ הֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲשִׂיתֶֽם: (ו) וַֽיַּשִּׂגֵ֑ם וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה: (ז) וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֵלָ֔יו לָ֚מָּה יְדַבֵּ֣ר אֲדֹנִ֔י כַּדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה חָלִ֙ילָה֙ לַעֲבָדֶ֔יךָ מֵעֲשׂ֖וֹת כַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה: (ח) הֵ֣ן כֶּ֗סֶף אֲשֶׁ֤ר מָצָ֙אנוּ֙ בְּפִ֣י אַמְתְּחֹתֵ֔ינוּ הֱשִׁיבֹ֥נוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וְאֵ֗יךְ נִגְנֹב֙ מִבֵּ֣ית אֲדֹנֶ֔יךָ כֶּ֖סֶף א֥וֹ זָהָֽב: (ט) אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִמָּצֵ֥א אִתּ֛וֹ מֵעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ וָמֵ֑ת וְגַם־אֲנַ֕חְנוּ נִֽהְיֶ֥ה לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לַעֲבָדִֽים: (י) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר גַּם־עַתָּ֥ה כְדִבְרֵיכֶ֖ם כֶּן־ה֑וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִמָּצֵ֤א אִתּוֹ֙ יִהְיֶה־לִּ֣י עָ֔בֶד וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּהְי֥וּ נְקִיִּֽם: (יא) וַֽיְמַהֲר֗וּ וַיּוֹרִ֛דוּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אַמְתַּחְתּ֖וֹ אָ֑רְצָה וַֽיִּפְתְּח֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אַמְתַּחְתּֽוֹ: (יב) וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ בַּגָּד֣וֹל הֵחֵ֔ל וּבַקָּטֹ֖ן כִּלָּ֑ה וַיִּמָּצֵא֙ הַגָּבִ֔יעַ בְּאַמְתַּ֖חַת בִּנְיָמִֽן: (יג) וַֽיִּקְרְע֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָ֑ם וַֽיַּעֲמֹס֙ אִ֣ישׁ עַל־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיָּשֻׁ֖בוּ הָעִֽירָה: (יד) וַיָּבֹ֨א יְהוּדָ֤ה וְאֶחָיו֙ בֵּ֣יתָה יוֹסֵ֔ף וְה֖וּא עוֹדֶ֣נּוּ שָׁ֑ם וַיִּפְּל֥וּ לְפָנָ֖יו אָֽרְצָה: (טו) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהֶם֙ יוֹסֵ֔ף מָֽה־הַמַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עֲשִׂיתֶ֑ם הֲל֣וֹא יְדַעְתֶּ֔ם כִּֽי־נַחֵ֧שׁ יְנַחֵ֛שׁ אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּמֹֽנִי: (טז) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוּדָ֗ה מַה־נֹּאמַר֙ לַֽאדֹנִ֔י מַה־נְּדַבֵּ֖ר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּ֑ק הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים מָצָא֙ אֶת־עֲוֹ֣ן עֲבָדֶ֔יךָ הִנֶּנּ֤וּ עֲבָדִים֙ לַֽאדֹנִ֔י גַּם־אֲנַ֕חְנוּ גַּ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־נִמְצָ֥א הַגָּבִ֖יעַ בְּיָדֽוֹ: (יז) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר חָלִ֣ילָה לִּ֔י מֵעֲשׂ֖וֹת זֹ֑את הָאִ֡ישׁ אֲשֶׁר֩ נִמְצָ֨א הַגָּבִ֜יעַ בְּיָד֗וֹ ה֚וּא יִהְיֶה־לִּ֣י עָ֔בֶד וְאַתֶּ֕ם עֲל֥וּ לְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־אֲבִיכֶֽם:

תולדות יצחק בראשית פרשת מקץ פרק מד פסוק ט

והתשובה, שאמרו לא חטאנו בזה, שלא גנבנו, אלא האלהים בקש ספרו, שכל מעשי האדם בספר נכתבים, ומצא עון ישן שעשינו והוא חטא מכירת יוסף, ולכן הננו עבדים לאדוני, לא לבד אנחנו החוטאים נהיה נענשים, אלא גם בנימין שלא חטא במכירה יהיה עבד.

העמק דבר בראשית פרשת מקץ פרק מד פסוק ט

(ט) אשר ימצא אתו וגו’. אפי’ ימצא אתו, ודאי הוא ראוי למות כגונב מבית המלך:

וגם אנחנו נהיה לאדני לעבדים. בתורת קנס, וכמתחבר עם הגנב, אבל לא שנהיה חשודים בזה שגם אנחנו כלנו גנבים ושיודעים אנו מזה ח”ו:

ביוגרפיה – תולדות יצחק

Isaac ben R. Joseph Caro was born in Toledo in 1458 and was a student of R. Isaac Canpanton – the Gaon of Castille. He moved to Portugal before the Spanish expulsion, and headed a yeshiva in Lisbon. After the Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1497 he wandered to Constantinople, and served as a rabbi in the city. All his sons passed away in the expulsion. After the death of his brother R. Efraim, he adopted his nephew R. Joseph Caro, who included a number of his uncle’s responsa in his works. Toledot Yizhak is a commentary on the Pentateuch including literal, homiletical, kabbalistic, and philosophical interpretations.

ביוגרפיה – העמק דבר

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin (Netziv) was born in Mir, Russia, in 1817, and died in Warsaw, Poland, in 1893. He was renowed primarily as head of the yeshivah of Volozhin in Russia, the “mother of modern yeshivot. “Berlin wrote commentaries on the Bible, the halachic midrashim, the Talmud, and the She’iltot, as well as many responsa.

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