Parshat Nitzavim: What Is the 'Hidden Sin' In This Week's Parsha?
Parshat Nitzavim: What Is the 'Hidden Sin' In This Week's Parsha?
Parshat Nitzavim states, “The hidden things are for God but the revealed things are for us,” which suggests perhaps that only God can punish for sins done in private. Could the parsha be alluding to a specific hidden sin in our history? Join Beth Lesch and Ami Silver as they re-examine the text of Nitzavim and its references to the story of the Sale of Joseph, and never think about Parshat Nitzavim the same way again.
Beth: Hi, there, everyone. Welcome back to Parsha Lab. I'm Beth Lesch. I'm a writer here at Aleph Beta.
Ami: And I'm Ami Silver. Also a writer at Aleph Beta.
Beth: Before we get started, just a quick reminder to all of you out there. If you haven't already, make sure you subscribe to Parsha Lab, share it with your friends and family and go ahead and rate us five stars so other folks can find us too.
We're talking today about Parashat Nitzavim. And for such a short parashah, there's a lot of really cool stuff going on in Parashat Nitzavim. In fact, some of my favorite lines in the entire Torah come from Parashat Nitzavim. We've got, behold I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, choose life. We've got, "Lo bashamayim hi," you know, the Torah is not far up away in the heavens, it's not across the oceans. It's in your heart and in your mouth to follow it.
But there's one other line, one other verse from this parashah that really intrigues me and that's the one that I want to focus on with you today. That is the final verse in the opening chapter of Nitzavim. Go ahead and look at Deuteronomy, Chapter 29, the very last verse. Ami, you want to read that for us?
Ami: Sure, Beth. "Hanistarot la'Hashem Elokeinu," the hidden matters are for God our Lord, "v'haniglot lanu ulvaneinu ad olam, la'asot et kol divrei ha'Torah hazot," and the revealed matters are for us and for our children forever, to do or carry out all of the words of this Torah.
Beth: Great, Ami. Let's take a few minutes just to try to make sense of this verse. What does this mean to you? What kind of ideas are jumping out to you when you read this?
Ami: I'm going to take a moment here, Beth, because I don't really have any context here. I need to take a look and see what are these verses right before that verse you're talking about.
Beth: So, Ami, I think that impulse is right. I think, in this case, the context here really stretches, not just back to the prior verses or the beginning of the parashah, but to the prior parashah, to Parashat Ki Tavo. Because in Parashat Ki Tavo, you might remember there are hidden things. There are things that are described in Parashat Ki Tavo which are hidden. Just like the verse here is referring to. Is this ringing any bells for you?
Ami: I'm intrigued, Beth. I'm not remembering the hidden language, but why don't you show me what you're talking about.
Ms.: All right. Remember in Parashat Ki Tavo, we get this crazy description of this orchestrated ritual where, you know, all the Tribes go up and they assemble on these two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. The Levites are standing in the middle of them and the Levites call out and say, cursed be the man who sets up an idol in secret. And all the people say, amen. And cursed be the person who dishonors his father or mother. And all the people say, amen.
So Rabbi Fohrman has this cool theory that he introduced in his parashah video about Ki Tavo. He says that there is something that all of these 12 sins have in common. What they have in common is that they're all things that are done in secret, they're all hidden sins. If you take a look at the list you'll see that that's true. You know, someone who makes an idol and sets it up in secret, that's, obviously, hidden. Someone who dishonors his father or mother, you know, that's also happening in a private living room, no one else is seeing that.
Ami: Right. As I'm looking at that list, now, I'm seeing a lot of this language of seter, which links to that word hanistarot, the hidden matters. All these private little sins.
Beth: Exactly. Cursed be the person who moves his neighbor's landmark. The guy who gets up in the middle of the night and goes and when no one can see him he pushes the fence of his neighbor's property a few yards back in order to make his own property bigger. You know, these are all things that are being done in secret.
Ami: Or this one in Verse 18, "Arur mashgeh iver badarech," somebody who is leading a blind person astray on their way. That could be in broad daylight, but as far as the blind person's concerned it's an absolute secret, they have no way of knowing.
Beth: Right. There's no witness to that crime. No one knows what's being done wrong and who's doing it wrong. Rabbi Fohrman, actually, isn't the first person to say this. Rabbi Fohrman says as much in his parashah video. He says that this is the Rashbam's reading, as well, of the 12 secret sins. In the Rashbam's comment, he links it to our verse. He says all of these things that are b'seter, all these things that are in secret, that's the nistarot that we're talking about.
The implication seems to be, you know, people are going to go around creeping, in the Children of Israel. They're going to go around and try to do these secretive things and sometimes they're going to pass under the radar of the law. Sometime the police won't catch them. Sometimes there'll be no witnesses to the crime. But just know that, hanistarot la'Hashem, that all the hidden things that you're doing, God sees you sneaking around and moving your neighbor's landmark at night. Even if you're not going to be able to put him on trial, God will be able to put him on trial. That's how I see it and that's how I interpret what the Rashbam is saying.
Ami: You know, Beth, if I may, just as you're bringing our attention here to Ki Tavo. It also, kind of, really refrains that, you know, that two‑mountain ritual to me. Because the whole nation is, basically, voicing, not only disapproval, but, basically, a pact around all of these secret behaviors. They're all saying out loud, in front of everybody and to one another. Anyone who does these kinds of acts in secret, we're all going to say this is a cursed thing to do, that person should be cursed.
Beth: Exactly. And I think this sheds some light, actually, on to why the ritual is performed on mountain tops. You know, Daniel and I, actually, this was the focus of our discussion back in Ki Tavo. But I think the idea is those things that you think that you're doing in secret, when there's not witnesses, when no one can see. You would never act that way if you were on a mountain top. If you thought you were on a pedestal and that everyone could see you, you would never think to move your neighbor's landmark. Well, you should know that even if there are no human witnesses to your crimes, in God's eyes it's as if your always on a mountain top when you act. So keep that in mind.
So, Ami, now, coming back to Nitzavim. That is, at least to my mind, the most straightforward way to understand this verse that we're talking about, you know, the nistarot la'Hashem, the hidden things are for God, but a lot of the niglot are for us. It really seems to be delineating two different kinds of justice. There is Divine justice and there is earthly justice. On the one hand, God tells us that we're supposed to set up courts and implement justice, as the Torah instructs us to. But there is this kind of justice that we're not going to be able to implement. The guy who moves his neighbor's landmark at night, we may never catch him. That we leave to God.
The prosecution of the secret sinners, the prosecution of the hidden things, that we leave to God. We're not able to bring justice to them and we shouldn't even try. That's how I make sense of the verse. I think it's an interesting encapsulation of our partnership with God and it leads me to a question. Have there been times in our history, were there earlier times in the Torah where there were secret sins committed? And if there were, how was justice done for those secret sins? Were there attempts to bring earthly justice for that sin or was it left in the hands of the Divine, as the verse implores us to do?
Ami: That's a really interesting question, Beth. I'd say, when you're talking about secret sins committed in our past, the first scene that comes to mind is the deception of Isaac. The very nature of it is disguising the actions, right? Jacob dressed up as his brother. Pretended to be somebody else. We talked about, back there in Ki Tavo, cursed is the one who misleads a blind man on his way. Isaac was the blind man being misled by his son. Many of the classical commentators, as well as a lot of the work we've done here in Aleph Beta, trace how the misdeeds or mistakes of the family of Jacob and Isaac, were, basically, played out in the next generations. The Joseph and his brothers and so on and so forth. So that was just the first scene that came to mind.
Beth: That's interesting to me. You know, Ami, let me ask you. I agree that it was a sin that was attempted in secret. Like you're saying, it was perpetrated against a blind person and it was done via disguise and deception. But at the end of the day, the perpetrators were outed, weren't they? At the end of the day everyone went home knowing what was done wrong and who did what wrong. Am I right?
Ami: I mean, it was already by the time Esau walked in the door. So I guess, the show didn't last too long, but only long enough to get the blessing.
Beth: So the next question is, were there any other sins in Israelite history, where the perpetrators were never outed? Were there any other sins that remained forever hidden?
Ami: Well, since we're on the family story, the next thing that comes to mind is the Sale of Joseph. There's a big question that Rabbi Fohrman has brought up and that we've dealt with at Aleph Beta here as well, did Jacob ever know what the brothers did to Joseph or was he just glad when they were already united and nobody every bothered to recount the whole bloody history?
Beth: The sale of Joseph is really a classic example of a hidden crime. Because if you think about the way that it was perpetrated, you know. The brothers throw him into the pit. He ends up getting sold down to Egypt. Then, having committed the act, then what did they do?
Ami: Then they created a foil. They brought the bloody cloak with goat's blood on it and said to their father, hey, do you recognize whose coat this is? Basically, led him to assume that Joseph was eaten by a wild animal.
Beth: Right. They manufactured this whole pretense just to cover their tracks.
Ami: I think we call that fabricating evidence.
Beth: That's right. Exactly. So Ami, it's really interesting that your mind went there, because my mind went there too. Not only because of this conceptual question that I'm asking you about was there another time in Israelite history where there was a hidden sin? It's not just the themes that are pointing me here, it's the text as well. I think if you look at the whole of the chapter, you see a number of textual clues, one after the other, that really do seem reminiscent of the Joseph story. Not exactly of the moment of the sale of Joseph, but of a moment just a little bit later in that saga.
So I want to go through with you some of those parallels that I found. I want to know what you think about them. I want to know if you can find any others. I have no idea what to make of this. I think it's, kind of, nuts. So let's dive in.
Ami: Okay. I'm excited.
Beth: So here we are, we're Chapter 29. "Vayikra Moshe el kol Yisrael," Moses is calling to all of Israel. He's uniting them all together and there is this emphasis on the fact that everyone is here. Ami, do you see some of that language? If you take a look at Verses 9, 10. You see what I'm talking about?
Ami: Sure. "Kulchem," all of you are here together. Your leaders, your elders, your officers, et cetera. The water carriers, the woodchoppers.
Beth: Exactly. It's everyone. The little ones, the women, the Tribes. Everyone is here. Actually, one of the most interesting parts of this parashah is if you look at Verses 13 and 14 you get another encapsulation of this idea of everyone being here. You want to read those for us, Ami?
Ami: Okay. So starting at 29, Verse 13. "V'lo itchem l'vadchem anochi koret et habrit hazot," I'm not forming this covenant with you alone, "v'et ha'alah hazot," and this curse, I guess. That's referring to some kind of condition on the covenant. "Ki at asher yeshno poh imanu omed hayom lifnei Hashem Elokeinu," rather this covenant is with all who are here present, standing with us today before God. "V'et asher einenu poh imanu hayom," and also with those who are not with us here today.
Beth: So that's, kind of, a crazy thought. I mean, that's a whole separate podcast of its own. How do you make a covenant with people who are not there today, right? People who are there and people who are not there. But that seems to be Moses' implication. The entirety of the Children of Israel is united on this day and they're all united for one purpose, which is to seal the covenant and serve their Father in heaven.
What's at stake, of course, is nothing less than life and death itself. You know, I mean, in the whole prior chapter we heard about all the curses that are going befall the people if they don't keep to the covenant. At the end of this parashah we hear that famous line about how really what I'm setting before you is life and death; choose life. Those were the stakes.
Ami: So, Beth, I don't know if this is one of the things that you had in mind, but I think that there is some Joseph and brothers language here, even in this verse we just read. This word, "et asher einenu poh," the ones who are not here with us. If I'm not mistaken, when the brothers were in Egypt and Joseph was standing there and the guys of, you know, the Egyptian second in command, I think the brothers described their missing brother, Joseph, as, "ha'echad einenu," there's one who is not here.
Ami: It's the same word that's here right now.
Beth: Yes, exactly. So the word einenu appears in that verse and also, hayom, right? There's this emphasis on who is standing there today and who is not standing there today. The people who were standing there in Joseph's day, were the 10 brothers and the people who weren't standing there today, were Benjamin on the one hand, who's home with his father and then Joseph on the other hand, who is, "einenu poh hayom," he is not here.
So, Ami, that was the first thing that I saw. I'm really glad that you picked up on it. That was the first thing. Because this word einenu is very, very unusual in the Torah. That was the first thing that made me say, ha. Could this possibly be pointing us back to Genesis 42? The more I looked the more I found. Because, you know, really if you think about the Nitzavim parallel, in Nitzavim, Moses is gathering all the Children of Israel together. Well, there was another time, back in the Joseph story, when someone tried to gather all of the Children of Israel together. That person was Joseph. Joseph was trying to gather all of the Children of Israel together, right?
Ami: Right. So he's trying to get ‑‑ they come at first without Benjamin, because Jacob doesn't want to lose his other beloved son. Joseph, basically, orchestrates things to the point where the brothers have to go back and bring their younger brother Benjamin with them.
Beth: Exactly. He orchestrates this whole crazy story, where he throws them in the jail and keeps Simon and all of it is for the goal of trying to get all of the Children of Israel, all 12 entities, all 12 representatives of the Tribes, to be standing united together. There's this emphasis on, well, there's some of us are here today and some of us are not here today, right?
Ami: That is something very interesting, also, just in the very next verse here in Nitzavim, Verse 15. For you know "et asher yashavnu b'Eretz Mitzrayim," you are the ones who know about our dwelling in the land of Egypt. We all know, where did the dwelling in the land of Egypt begin? It all began there, with Joseph and his brothers.
Beth: Exactly. There's another verse here which piqued my interest and that is Deuteronomy 29, Verse 3. Moses is telling the people this very adverse. He says, look, basically, up until this point you haven't been able to truly know, truly see or truly hear. And now, starting today, as of the sealing of this covenant, you're able to know and to see and to hear. But in the past, you weren't able to know or see or hear.
Well, there is a time in the story of the saga of Joseph, in Genesis Chapter 42, this chapter we've been looking at, where the Children of Israel were not able to know and were not able to hear.
Ami: And they certainly have the eyes to see who was standing in front of them.
Beth: Exactly. And the verse that I'm talking about is Verse 23, in Genesis 42. "V'heim lo yadu ki shomai'a Yosef, ki hameilitz beinosam," they didn't know that Joseph was able to hear them, that he understood them, because there was an interpreter between them. In other words, there the brothers are, they're assembled in front of Joseph, but they don't know that he's Joseph. They start saying, oh, my gosh, these terrible things that are happening to us, maybe it's just all a punishment for the fact that we treated our brother, Joseph, so badly all the way back when.
They don't realize, they don't know, that Joseph right there is in front of them and is able to understand them. They think he's an Egyptian, he must speak another language, he doesn't understand their language, but in fact, he does. So back then they didn't know, back then they couldn't hear. Like you said, back then they couldn't see. But by the time we get to Nitzavim they're in a position to see.
You also made the point that they weren't able to see that the person standing before them was Joseph and there's a reason for that. The reason for that is Verse 7 in Genesis 42.
Ami: Okay. I'll read that verse. "Vayar Yosef et echav, vayakireim," and Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them. "Vayitnaker aleihem, va'yedabeir itam kashot," and he made himself a stranger to them and spoke harsh words to them.
Now, just a side point here. It's a really, kind of, fascinating play on words there, "vayakireim, vayitnaker," Joseph recognizing and Joseph making himself a stranger. Both have this shared Kaf‑Reish, almost the same linguistic root there meaning both to be familiar and to make yourself unfamiliar, to make yourself disguised. "Vayomer aleihem," he says to them, "mei'ayin batem," where did you come from? "Vayomru mei'Eretz Cana'an lishbor ochel," we came from Canaan in order to get food.
Beth: So what Joseph is doing is he's hiding himself. Again, it comes back to those themes in Nitzavim that he's committing some kind of hidden crime. He's acting in secret. He's acting in a way so that people won't know who he is or what he's doing. Again, we talked about how in Nitzavim the people are all uniting together. They're all uniting to serve their one Heavenly Father and that what's at stake is nothing less than life and death.
So, Ami, I think we see that also in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Take a look at Chapter 43 of Genesis. This time it's Verse 8.
Ami: Okay. So here the brothers are back from Joseph to go back to Canaan and try to convince their father to send Benjamin with them. "Vayomer Yehudah el Yisrael aviv," Judah says to his father, Israel, "shulcha hana'ar iti v'nakumah v'neileichah," send the youth with me and we'll go up and we'll journey there, "v'nichyeh v'lo namut," we shall then live and not die, "gam anachnu, gam atah, gam tapeinu," we're going to live and not die, both us, both you and also our children. It really, kind of, echoes that language in Nitzavim. All the people who are gathered here today, including tapchem, your children. Really interesting.
Beth: So, Ami, we've put some evidence on the table. I don't think it's ironclad yet. I think, at this point, we're in the vicinity of interesting. Is that how you feel?
Ami: I'd agree to that. I find this interesting.
Beth: Okay. But I think it does give us permission to do the following. You know, just to circle back to the beginning of this podcast. We opened up by saying really it seems like conceptually, Ki Tavo and Nitzavim are forming this package. It's this package that warns against what will happen if any member of the Children of Israel tries to commit a sin in secret. It's a package that tells us that it's not our job, as human beings, to prosecute the secret sinners, to bring them to justice. Only God can do that.
That pointed us back to the story of Joseph and the sale of Joseph. That was really the first time in Israelite history that we had a real classic secret sin that was committed. It wasn't just the themes that linked us back to the story of Joseph and his brothers, we spotted all these different textual links also in the Chapter that seemed to be hinting back to Joseph.
I think it gives us permission to ask the question, how was justice done for that secret sin? The sale of Joseph that the brothers perpetrated in secret, did Joseph attempt to bring justice himself upon them or did he leave the justice in the hand of God? That's the question I want to ask you.
Ami: Well, he certainly meddled with justice, right? He certainly pulled some strings and continued to orchestrate things. Did he finally mete out justice and punish them and hold them accountable? Question mark.
Beth: So, Ami, Nitzavim tells us that the hidden things are supposed to be for God to prosecute. The secret things are supposed to be in God's hands. So the question is, when Joseph gets the brothers into his hands, these perpetrators of a secret sin, when they come and show up on his doorstep in Egypt and they don't know that it's him, does he leave the hidden things to God, the way that Nitzavim urges us and him to do or does he take justice into his own hands?
Ami: You know, Beth, I feel like that is one of the huge unanswered questions about the Joseph story. You know, we don't get Joseph soliloquys. We don't get him speaking to the audience saying, oh, here are my brothers. This isn't Shakespeare. We see what Joseph does. We can infer a whole lot from what he does. The brothers make inferences of why are these things happening to us? I wonder if it's safe to say that it's a little bit of both.
I mean, I want to go to this verse again. "Hanistarot la'Hashem Elokeinu v'haniglot lanu ulvaneinu," the hidden matters are for God, the revealed matters are for us. You know, there's one way to read that as being two totally different realms. There are such things as hidden matters, that's the stuff God deals with. There are such things as revealed matters, that's the stuff that it's our obligation to take care of. But I'm wondering if the word there "and" is not necessarily dividing them into two neat categories, but saying that there's different sides to these stories.
In any case of justice, you're dealing with your best guess based on what you know. And there's always the unknowns and even when you know the whole story there are the things deeper in that person's heart. The motivating factors, the things that lead towards this scenario, that truly only God knows and can manage. So I'm wondering if Joseph is doing his best to deal with the situation, based on what he knows, what he feels, what he thinks is right. He's partnering with God here.
Beth: That's a really intriguing possibility. What I hear you saying is, you know, the way that we had previously read this verse is that there's basically two different kinds of crimes. There is the guy who commits a crime in broad daylight and there are two witnesses who see him and testify in trial about what he did. That's not a case of the hidden, that's a case of the revealed. That is something which is obviously open and revealed to everyone and that person gets prosecuted in an earthly court of law. Then there's the hidden matters. Then there is the person who sneaks in the dark of night to move his neighbor's property line and no one's ever going to know that he did it, so only God can judge him.
What I hear you saying, though, is no. Even that person who committed his crime in broad daylight. Yes, there are witnesses who are going get up and testify and yes, the earthly judges can and should implement justice, to the best degree possible. But they're never going to know the full story. Maybe there was something going on in his mind. There was some intention. There was some intervening factor that only God is privy to and yes, God is going to allow the 20‑year sentence for this guy to pass, but God is going to do His own kind of justice in the background. There's going to be a partnership, because every crime, maybe, can have an element of hidden matter and revealed matter tied up together.
Ami: I want to take it even further. Because think about the whole Joseph story from start to finish is filled with, basically, a surface‑level narrative of the events that happen and some kind of much deeper story that's unfolding behind all of it. We can go as far back to the Brit Bein Habetarim, of when the Covenant Between the Pieces, when God said to Abraham your children are going to be strangers in a land that's not their own. The prophecy of the enslavement of Egypt that ends up, somehow, coming through this story.
Beth: That's right.
Ami: But I'm even thinking of what Joseph said to his brothers at the very end of Genesis, when the brothers were bowing and saying Joseph have mercy on us. We're so sorry for what we did. He said, what are you talking about? You didn't send me down here. God sent me to Egypt to give you life. Meaning Joseph himself is saying, what you think you did, there was a nistar that was la'Hashem Elokeinu. God was, in a hidden way, orchestrating the whole thing, pulling the strings for our benefit.
Beth: It was hidden, but it was revealed to Joseph in his dream and it's only all of these years later, when the brothers are standing before Joseph, that Joseph finally realizes that the hidden was revealed and then now it's come to be.
Ami: That these hidden seeds of what's going on beneath the surface take, maybe, a long time to gestate until they get to a point of full revelation and understanding, what is actually going on here? What's the purpose of this whole thing?
Beth: So, you know, Ami, I think it's a really intriguing point. I'm so glad that you muddled the dichotomy between the hidden matters and the revealed matters. I think you're absolutely right that in every situation and any action that a person takes, there's some aspect of hidden matter there that only God can know and that only God can dole out justice for. But nonetheless, like you said, we act based in the information that we have.
So what I want to do is, like, let's just review the bullet points of what happens in the Joseph story. How does Joseph respond when he finds that he has these perpetrators in his hand and how do we read his actions? Do we see that he tries to do justice or do we see that he lets God do it? So what happens in the story?
The brothers, in Chapter 42, show up and the first thing Joseph does is he makes himself a stranger to them. He hides himself and he speaks harshly to them and he scares them. He accuses them of being spies. Then he says here's how we're going to suss out whether or not you really are spies, we're going to throw you in jail and he throws them in a jail for three day. By the way, just like he himself had been thrown in a jail because what of his brothers had done to him. Then he lets all but one of them go and now Simon is stuck in the jail and the rest of them are supposed to go home and get Benjamin. They can't, they're going to die if they don't bring Benjamin back, because he says, you know, you're going to run out of food eventually and I'm the master of the food and I won't see you unless you bring Benjamin with you.
Ami: Beth, I just want to interject you for a second. Isn't that interesting that his first test of them is to see if this hidden matter can be revealed to be true. You say you have some brother who's not here right now, who's back at home. That's a mystery to me. Either he exists or he doesn't. Let's see if you can prove that hidden matter to be true in a revealed way. Bring your brother and show me his face.
Beth: Right. I don't him to remain hidden. I want him to be revealed, so bring him to me. So far, I don't know. Based on just that alone, Ami, it seems to me ‑‑ I feel torn about this because it seems like Joseph is playing games with them. It seems like he's, you know, one way to read this is, ha‑ha‑ha, you did this terrible thing to me all those years ago and now I have got you in my hand and I'm in the seat of power and I get to repay some of that ill that you paid towards me. I don't know. I think that's one way to read it. What are you seeing in this, Ami?
Ami: I think it definitely does seem that way. Part of what ‑‑ to muddy the waters once more. Part of what seems to be this two‑sided part of the story is that, if I'm not mistaken, Joseph's first action is not just to hide himself, but to go hide and cry. There's all these hidden tears that Joseph is carrying throughout the story. So as much as he might really want to be the tough guy towards them, as much as he might really want to pull them by a string and mess around with them and get his chance for payback, he's also crying behind closed doors when he can't contain his emotions anymore. So what's that about?
Beth: Then, Ami, if you move a little bit further in the story, of course, you get to this famous moment where Joseph orders one of the stewards in his house to take his silver goblet and to place it into Benjamin's sack and frames Benjamin. I mean, actually, we had an earlier iteration of this, when the brothers are on their first voyage back home. He returned all of their money in their sacks and that scared the daylights out of them. Then, again, he does it. He takes something which is supposed to belong to him and he puts in their sacks. He frames Benjamin. He threatens that Benjamin is going to be a slave.
You can read this as him toying with them, but why would he toy with Benjamin? Benjamin is his brother, you know, the other child of Rachel. It's not clear if Benjamin was even old enough, in the first place, to have participated in the sale of Joseph. It seems like he wasn't there.
So I don't know, Ami. Up until this point I think you read this saga of Joseph receiving his brothers and you say Joseph was just playing with them. It looks like a cat and a mouse. Because he could, because they deserved justice and he was taking justice into his own hands. But when you get to this part with the framing of Benjamin, I think there is a possibility that it recasts the whole prior story in a new light. It just makes me wonder if, maybe, from the start, Joseph was never trying to play with them. He was never trying to do his own justice.
Maybe from the very start the only question that he was trying to answer for himself was, I was thrown out of this family years ago and I have a choice. I can either reveal myself or I can remain hidden. I have to choose do I want to be a part of this family now and are they ready to have me as a part of the family? The litmus test is how do the brothers treat the sons of Rachel? How do the brothers treat the other child of Rachel? He was the first child of Rachel and he was thrown into a pit. You know, the children of Rachel were always the ones who were more beloved, so he orchestrates this whole elaborate scene, not to torture them, but maybe just for the purpose of recreating this test to see.
Okay, brothers. When Benjamin's life is on the line, what are you going to do? Are you going to do like what you did with me in the pit all those years ago or are you going to step up? Maybe he wasn't doing justice all along. I don't know. What do you think about that?
Ami: I think what you're saying, Beth, makes sense. Especially if we, kind of, see the evolution of Joseph throughout the story with his brothers, when he's in Egypt. Like I said before, there are these tears that accompany him throughout. At first, he cries, then he just turns around to yell at them and threaten. The next time they come around with Benjamin he goes and cries again, but then he gets himself together.
By the way, I'm looking at the last place where he cannot bear his tears anymore and it says, "V'lo yachol Yosef l'hitapeik," he could not hold himself back anymore, "l'chol hanitzavim alav," for all those who were nitzavim upon him, all those standing there around him. Which are, obviously, his brothers. I wonder if somehow, maybe at first, he did, when he spoke those harsh terms, he was trying to hold them accountable and give payback, but at some point, the tears overwhelmed and the Joseph who was trying to hide from his brothers overwhelmed the Joseph who wanted to pay them back. Maybe we see part of that throughout the rest of the story. At some point it's about wanting to reunite with his siblings, rather than holding a grudge against them.
Beth: I think that's a really fascinating possibility. So just to say it again. What I hear you saying is maybe at the start of the story Joseph wasn't following the advice. He wasn't following the directive from Nitzavim. He wasn't leaving the hidden matters to God, he was trying it into his own hands. At a certain point throughout the story, the love wins out and he says okay, fine. At the end of the day, like, God orchestrated this sale. Maybe they're not hidden sinners after all. This was all part of God's plan and I'm going to leave it to God. I'm not going to try to do justice.
I think it's an interesting possibility. It just also makes me realize, you know, it's so easy for us as Monday‑morning quarterbacks to look back at Joseph's reaction and say what was he doing speaking harshly to them? It's one thing to not reveal yourself, it's one thing to orchestrate a test, but there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary punishments along the way.
At the same time, you have to remember, Joseph didn't know they were coming. Like, he was waiting there, on the throne of Egypt, for all of these years and it's not like he was thinking to himself my brothers are going to walk in the door today and I have the opportunity to create the perfect situation to find out if they have become good or not. I mean, they catch him completely off guard.
So the question is in that moment, you know, yeah, there probably is some resentment there and there probably is some desire for vengeance there. It's like do you blame him? He hasn't had a chance to think it through.
Ami: I think, just to come back to where our point of reference was, where you started us off. I think it's powerful that we're linking back to Ki Tavo with the Tribes standing on the different mountain tops and they seem to be saying to one another, let's all hold ourselves and one another accountable to not be hiding these wicked deeds. Let's all hold each other as one family, as one nation composed of 12 Tribes. Let's hold ourselves together accountable, to be the ones who are going to be uncovering hidden truths and treating one another in a way that's just. And uprooting the causes of destruction in our family which come from people doing all these things in a hidden matter.
Beth: Yeah, I think you're right about that. But like you said, like you coming back to your point about the evolution of Joseph. It took a little while to get there, because this whole story of how Joseph acts towards his brothers, it's one hidden act after another. It's the hiddenness of him hiding himself from them. It's the hiddenness of him throwing them into jail, into a hidden place where no one can see them. It's the hiddenness of him retaining Simon and sending them back to their father to get Benjamin. It's the hiddenness of him putting their money back in their sacks without them knowing it.
Actually, Ami, in fact, let me show you something very cool about that. If you remember, the first time they go back to Canaan he puts the money in their sacks and they open up the sacks and they are terrified. And they say, oh, my gosh, you know. What is this guy, this Egyptian man, going to do when he finds out that we took this money back? I'm reading in between the lines here. We were supposed to have paid this to him and now we have it back. Oh, my God, we stole this money.
Jacob, their father, who sends them back to Egypt says, listen, guys. I know you're worried about what happened. Take extra money in your sacks and make sure that you take back that money that was placed in your sacks and make sure you take it back and bring it to Egypt. Because, what does he say? Take a look at Chapter 43, Verse 12. What does he say? Take it back, "Ulai," lest, "mishgeh hu." Now, Ami, how do you translate mishgeh? It's a very unusual word.
Ami: I assume it has something to do with the word shogeg, which is a mistake.
Beth: So I think that there might be two things going on with this word. Because on the one hand, I think you're right. It probably is related to shogeg. Like, perhaps the money was put back in your bag unintentionally. You didn't know. It was a mistake. They didn't mean for it to go back into your bag and you can clear this whole thing up. But I think there's something else going on with this word. This word mishgeh doesn't appear anywhere else in the Torah, but a very similar word does appear in one other place. It spelled the same way, but the vowels are different.
The word that I'm thinking of is not mishgeh, but mashgeh. The word mashgeh, you actually read it at the beginning of our podcast. The word mashgeh comes up. It's one of the 12 hidden sins which is pronounced atop of the Mount Ebal.
Ami: Right. "Arur mashgeh iver badarech," cursed is the one who misguides or misleads a blind person on their way.
Beth: The implication there doesn't seem to be that's it's b'shogeg, that's it's accidental. The implication there seems to be someone who deceives and manipulates and misguides a blind person, you know, a person who doesn't know what they're doing. So I think, perhaps, there's a double meaning to what Jacob is saying. Perhaps the money was put back in you back accidentally, but perhaps it was the case of one of those paradigmatic secret sins. Perhaps it was Joseph, although he doesn't know it's Joseph, being mashgeh a blind person.
Ami: Maybe that Egyptian prince is playing with you.
Beth: Exactly, exactly. And he's playing with you in a way that no one will ever know, because there is no real witness to this crime. Okay. So, Ami, where does that leave us? You know, I think the thematic parallels here are really cool. I think the textual parallels here are intriguing and there's even more evidence that we didn't get in to cover, but I have to tell you. This was fascinating for me, just because it gave me a chance to open up, to reopen the whole saga of Joseph and ask this question which I never thought to ask before. Which is, like, what was he doing in all those interactions with his brothers? Every step of the way, with the harsh words and the hiddenness. Was he playing games with them, like clay in his hand or was he doing something else entirely, something quite justifiable?
How much was emotion and how much was calculation? You know what I mean? I'm curious to hear what our listeners think about this. Do you buy my defense of Joseph or do you think there's something more going on here?
Ami: And I'd say for myself, personally, I like to read the stories of our Biblical characters as human beings, albeit very remarkable human beings. But I think the greatest things that I learn from is seeing them go through human processes, which include doubts, which include insecurities and lack of clarity and which sometimes find really redemptive resolution.
I even wonder, I'm thinking to myself out loud, why is Moses, maybe, bringing back all this language and symbolism from the Joseph story at this point in the Torah, at this point in the nation's history? He might also be learning from Joseph. He might be also saying, as a nation we still need to grapple with what Joseph grappled with and with what the brothers grappled with and we're going to learn how to reckon with it. We've seen the mistakes, we've the disasters of the past, let's make sure that we can work on that, going forward in a way that's going to be healthy and just for all of us.
Beth: I think that's right. Ami, I think that's a great question to ask. I'm leaning in another direction. I am thinking about, not how was Moses making sense of this story, but how do I, in my life, make sense of this story? We had started out by saying that the hidden matters are for God. Maybe, what that means is that things that are committed in secret are for God? But maybe there's another way to interpret it. You know, maybe what it means is that the revealed things are for us. The kind of justice that we do should be justice which is niglah, which is justice which is done openly, candidly, transparently, in a court. Not the kind of justice that is done on the sly, passive aggressively. Let me stick some money in your sack and see how you make sense of it. Let me frame you and test you and see what you do with this test.
I mean, at the end of the day, there's a lot of hidden justice in the Joseph story and the only thing that allows it to come to a resolution is Judah stepping forth with Vayigash and saying, no more of this concealed anything. I'm going to reveal everything and put everything on the table. That's what stirs Joseph to reveal himself, in the end.
So I'm just thinking about the times in my life when, you know, no one's ever sold me into slavery, but just the times when I'm simmering over something in a relationship. It's like, are you going to try to do justice in a secret way or is the best resolution here to just put it on the table and let everything be open?
Ami: Maybe, if something is really revealed, it's healthier to talk about it and deal with it than to pretend that it's hidden.
Beth: Yeah, that's it. Exactly. All right, Ami. That was great. Thanks for going on this journey with me and playing around with these questions.
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