Miketz: On avoiding sin and tackling temptation

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Genesis 41:1-44:17

Numbers 7:30-41

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Did you ever notice all the self-improvement books on The New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List? Many other best-selling books, published by religious specialty houses (and not on the Times list), provide advice about how to develop spiritually or morally. Religious moral-growth literature and secular self-improvement literature have a lot in common. We read these books because we want to change ourselves — or at least daydream about changing.

On my cynical days, I wonder how well all this self-improvement reading really works. Someone curious enough to test the effectiveness of reading for self-improvement would need to determine what constitutes improvement. I propose simple criteria: If the person enters the same situation in which he or she has failed or sinned in the past, and this time does not sin or fail, then that person has changed. When the ex-smoker says, "No thanks," when the dieter says, "I'll have fruit for dessert," when the tyrannical boss cheerfully says, "I didn't ask you to do it that way, but your way might even work out better" — that constitutes change.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah gives this definition of change (Yoma 86b): A person who sins and enters the same situation again and is saved from sin earns the right to be called "penitent." According to this definition, a person who disdains his former behavior, who sighs angrily when he contemplates his past, who recites the appropriate prayers or attends the recommended therapy sessions, who earnestly promises to change, who apologizes profusely, or uses the approved vocabulary to describe his failures might well still be unchanged.

Do not denigrate the accomplishments of someone who consistently avoids tempting situations. But someone who overcomes temptation deserves the highest praise.

In this week's reading, Joseph seems to have a similar idea in mind. Look at his situation: He serves as viceroy of Egypt in charge of food distribution, a position of apparent political power. His brothers, driven by famine, travel to Egypt to purchase grain. They do not recognize Joseph, while he recognizes them at once (Gen. 42:5-8). They have found their brother, but he has to decide whether to let them know or let them go. If he chooses the latter he must forget he ever had a family-of-origin.

He has good reason to forget. Last time he saw these older brothers, 22 years ago, they nearly killed him (Gen. 37:18-33). They threw him into a pit. A passing caravan picked him up, but only as merchandise; Joseph believes his brothers sold him into slavery (Gen. 45:4-5).

Truth to tell, these brothers had their reasons for jealousy: Their father never treated his wives equally, reserving the name "wife" for Joseph's mother alone (Gen. 44:27). Their father never treated his sons equally, giving Joseph special gifts, status and responsibilities that set him above his older brothers. And Joseph himself annoyed them, tattling on them and boasting about his dreams for the future (Gen. 37:2-11). They had their reasons for hating him, back then. But if their attitude has not changed since then, Joseph has no reason to deal with them.

On the other hand, perhaps they have repented. If so, Joseph can reconcile with his family.

How can Joseph decide what to do about his brothers? He constructs a complex experiment that puts his older brothers into the same situation again, to see how they will behave this time. Joseph arranges for his older brothers to have all the same reasons to re-enact the crime that they had committed the first time around.

Did they commit the crime merely for money? This time, Joseph takes his brother Shimon hostage and arranges for the other brothers to have extra cash in their luggage — cash they do not deserve but that they can keep if they will only abandon Shimon in Joseph's dungeon. But they come back, return the money and effect Shimon's freedom.

So Joseph tests them again: Did they hate him because he got extra privileges and gifts from their father? This time, Joseph gives extra presents to Benjamin, to see how the others react. The brothers do not quarrel with Benjamin.

Did they hate Joseph because their father favored his mother, Rachel? Joseph frames Rachel's other son, Benjamin, for theft, and throws him into the dungeon. This time, the others have the opportunity to abandon Benjamin. When Judah begins an impassioned plea that he himself should go into the dungeon and Benjamin should go free, then Joseph knows his older brothers have overcome temptation. Then he reveals himself recognizing that his brothers are truly penitent.

It is important that we, too, follow the example of Joseph, forgiving those who have repented.