Parshat Vayigash: The Seven R's of Repentance by Rabbi Donni Aaron

Posted on Dec 3, 2013


By Rabbi Donni Aaron 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, prompting the entire family to move to Egypt, where Joseph reunites with his father, Jacob.

One specific passage in the text says: 

"Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers."

(Genesis 44:33) 

A wonderful colleague of mine, Rabbi Gold, beautifully connected this week’s Torah portion to the capacity for one to change for the better. He writes the following:

Can people truly change?  We joke that "a leopard cannot change its spots" or "you cannot teach an old dog new tricks."  Note that both these proverbs deal with animals.  Humans can change, we can get on the right path when we have gone astray.  It is difficult, but certainly do-able.

How do we go about changing?  It is a series of steps we each must take as we strive to follow the correct path.

RECOGNITION - The first step is to recognize that a particular action is wrong.  The words "everyone is doing it," "it is not big deal," "it is simply my nature," are signs that we do not even recognize our misbehavior.  Pharaoh at first hardened his heart, but eventually the Torah teaches that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart."  Pharaoh became so used to doing the wrong thing that he did not even recognize it as being wrong.  We humans, despite our rationalizations, can discern right from wrong.

RESPONSIBILITY - It is not enough to say that a particular action is wrong.  We must not make excuses, but rather accept responsibility.  There is a famous Midrash (Rabbinic legend) how Cain, after slaying his brother Abel, blamed God.  It is like a thief who blames the watchman for not better protecting the property.  So we blame illness, racism, the way we were raised, our nature, everything but ourselves.  Finding a scapegoat for our misbehavior is the easy way out; taking responsibility is the Jewish way.

REMORSE - When we do wrong, we ought to feel bad.  Guilt has a purpose, it causes pain which makes us change our ways.  However, I want to differentiate between guilt and shame.  Guilt is the statement "I did something bad."  Shame is the statement "I am something bad." 

RESTITUTION - This is the key point, and therefore it is smack in the middle.  We must pay the price for our bad behavior.  This certainly means apologizing to those we wronged; Jewish law says we should try three times to apologize.  It means paying for any monetary loss, and suffering whatever punishments are appropriate.  Restitution may even mean something harsh; resigning a position or even serving jail time.  Restitution is the beginning of healing.

RESOLVE - Only after we have paid the price are we ready to resolve to change our ways.  This is a decision regarding behavior.  We will strive to return to the proper path.  The Talmud teaches that if we sin and repent, sin and repent, without the resolve to change, Yom Kippur does not help.  There must be a decision not to turn down the wrong path.

RECOVERY - I call this step recovery because it grows out of the recovery movement, the popular twelve step programs.  We must turn to a higher power, to God to try to come onto the right path.  The Talmud teaches, "Resh Lakish said, if a man comes to purify himself, he is helped from above." (Yoma 38b)  The recovery movement also recognizes that change is a difficult process that we must struggle with daily.

REPENTANCE - The word teshuvah, translated repentence, actually means "return."  Maimonides describes true repentance as the ability to face precisely the same temptation and this time take a different path, to return to the proper path.  In last week's portion, Joseph tested his brothers.  They had sold him into slavery because he was their father's favorite.  He arranged it so that they could abandon the other beloved brother Benjamin to slavery.  When his brother Judah stepped forward to save Benjamin, prepared to give himself as a slave instead, Joseph knew that his brothers had done true teshuvah - repentance.