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Thought for the Day: Learning Disaster Management from the Shvatim

One of the most important lessons I learned early in my transition to Orthodoxy Judaism was how to view ishei tanach.  As one of my rabaim put it, "Did HaShem put your story in the Tanach?  No.  So think very carefully before criticizing their behaviour."  Basically, if Chazal didn't report a criticism, then you best determine where your misunderstanding lies rather then theirs.  The incidents from Yaakov's return to Eretz Kana'an till his exile to Mitzrayim certainly bear much analysis.

Case in point: The 10 brothers go to Mitzrayim to buy food and look for Yosef.  They are hauled in front of Yosef (whom they do not recognize), are accused of being spies, and are informed the only way to prove their innocence is to bring Binyamin.  The brothers are completely subdued in their behaviour and admit to each other that they deserve this because they did not act more mercifully to Yosef when they saw how distressed he was in the pit.  (Ummm... but nothing wrong with throwing him into a pit of snakes and scorpions in the first place?!?)  Then Reuvein answers (who asked a question??), "Isn't this what I told you when I said don't sin against the boy?"  (And exactly how is playing "I told you so" going to help this situation?)  As the story continues, the brother remain humbled before Yosef, always seeing that as Yad HaShem and mida k'neged mida.  Until, that is, the first valid charge (as far as Yehuda knows) is levied against them (the theft of the magic mug), when Yehuda suddenly springs into action, ready to fight Yosef to the death.

The key is to realize that the Shvatim seriously lived every moment in this world in front of HaShem; His presence was not an philosophical concept, but a tangible reality.  They felt no regret at sentencing Yosef to death and executing that sentence.  They had convened a bais din and found him to be a rodef (pursuer) and gave the appropriate sentence.  Only now that they are being treated so roughly do they go back and consider their lives to this point.  There is only one time in their entire lives that they did not act with extreme mercy and kindness -- those moments while Yosef was in the pit.  Therefore, they reasoned, that must the reason for the rough treatment they are now receiving.  Of course they accept punishment with love; it is directly from HaKadosh Baruch Hu, after all.  But one thing still disturbs them: this is worse that rough treatment, their lives are in danger.  After much thought, Reuvein answers, "Ah!  This is what I told you --- he was a boy and so did not consider the full repercussions of his actions.  He was not a rodef!  We were wrong in our p'sak."  The brothers concur and so continue to accept this punishment with humility.  That is, until Binyamin is threatened.  Since Binyamin was not involved, this is no longer mida k'neged mida and it is time to fight.  Again, Yehuda's decision is not affected by the personal cost to himself; HaShem is running the show and this is the clearly demanded course of action.

Life is lived differently when the Creator is a tangible reality.  Of course that's not how we live (yet), but the Avos and Shvatim certainly did.  The least we can do when learning Tanach is to be intellectually honest enough to project our faulty perception of the world on our illustrious ancestors.

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