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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayechi: Appease the victim
Joseph's brothers got very nervous. They feared that Joseph planned to take revenge, after the demise of their father, for all the wrong they had done to him. If one has harmed another person, it is not sufficient to repent. One must make sure to appease the victim as well. The ten great sages that were killed during the Hadrian persecutions, known as the Ten Martyrs, suffered cruel deaths as atonement for the wrong that Joseph's ten brothers did to him. If one does not achieve atonement during one's lifetime, G'd will allow the soul to come back to this world for another chance. Russian Jewish children, taken to army service for a minimum of twenty-five years, had the souls of Jews who in Biblical times had served the idol Baal. As we are getting close to the coming of Moshiach, said the Chofetz Chaim, this is the last chance to rectify earlier sins.
In this week's parasha, the Torah describes the last days of Jacob, and how he blessed all his children, each one with their special blessing. The parasha continues to describe how Joseph and his brothers took their father back to the land of Israel to bury him there, and how the elders of Egypt and Pharaoh's servants went along and showed Jacob tremendous respect at his last journey. When they returned to Egypt, the brothers got very nervous, as they noticed certain changes in Joseph's conduct (see Rashi Bereishis 50:15). They feared that Joseph planned to take revenge for all the wrong they had done to him, after the demise of their father. They therefore instructed the children of Bilhah, who had a good rapport with Joseph, to ask him to forgive them. As it says (Bereishis 50:17): "Now please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you evil." When Joseph heard this, he started to cry and said to them (ibid 19-20): "Do not fear … you had in mind to harm me, G'd had in mind that it should be for the good … to sustain many people."
Appease the victim
Rabbeinu Bechayei points out that, although Joseph told his brothers not to worry and made it clear to them that he had no intention to harm them, he never expressed that he forgave them for the wrong they had done to him. Rabbeinu Bechayei quotes the Talmud (Bava Kama 92a) that teaches that if one has harmed another person, it is not sufficient to repent. One must make sure to appease the victim as well. The Talmud explains that G'd will not forgive the sinner till he has obtained forgiveness from his victim. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 606:1) rules that on Yom Kippur, we will not be forgiven for any harm we have done to others till we are forgiven by the victim. Rabbeinu Bechayei concludes that since Joseph did not explicitly forgive them, they were still eligible to be punished for their wrongdoing.
At the end of Parashas Miketz, Rabbeinu Bechayei explains that the brothers received partial punishment after Joseph's death, when the first stage of slavery started. He quotes from kabbalistic sources that the ten great sages that were killed during the Hadrian persecutions, known as the Ten Martyrs, suffered cruel deaths as a final atonement for the wrong that Joseph's ten brothers did to him. We read about this tragic event both on Yom Kippur in the repetition of Mussaf and during the special kinnot said on Tisha B'Av. On Yom Kippur we read how one of the Roman emperors had studied the Torah and learned what it says (Shemos 21:16): "And one who steals a man and sells him … he shall for sure be put to death." He summoned two of the greatest rabbis of the time, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the Kohein Gadol, and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, and asked them what the Torah rules in regards to someone who kidnaps another person and sells him. They told him that such a person has to be persecuted. He responded that Joseph's ten brothers had never been punished for their crime. Since they were not alive anymore to suffer their punishment, the emperor demanded that ten sages should take their place. The sages asked for three days to clarify the issue, which the emperor granted. During the three days, Rabbi Yishmael, the Kohein Gadol, purified himself and invoked the Ineffable Name of G'd. This enabled him to communicate with the Angel Gabriel who told him that this was a Heavenly decree, and that they should accept their death's as such.
This amazing insight shows us how we can never fathom the ways of G'd. The Kabbalists explain that G'd, in His great love to the Jewish people, gives every person a chance to obtain atonement. If one does not achieve it during one's lifetime, G'd will allow the soul to come back to this world for another chance. The Ten Martyrs were the greatest sages of their time, and if not for the communication between the Kohein Gadol and the Angel Gabriel, we would have had no clue why they should meet such a cruel, untimely death.
In recent times, the Chofetz Chaim revealed another Heavenly decree that only he, in his great holiness, had been privy to know. During the reign of the Czars, the Russian authorities would kidnap young Jewish children and bring them to brute Russian farmers to prepare them for army service for a minimum of twenty-five years. They are known as Cantonists. No one could understand why these pure and innocent children had to suffer so miserably for so many years. However, the Chofetz Chaim explained that these children had the souls of Jews who in Biblical times had served the idol Baal. These souls were now given another chance to show their loyalty to G'd, and thus they were able to atone for their wrongdoing in their earlier lives.
As we are getting close to the coming of Moshiach, said the Chofetz Chaim, this is our last chance to rectify earlier sins. May we all be spared from further trials and tribulations, and see the coming of Moshiach in the near future.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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