When Yosef’s brothers were sitting in prison after Yosef accused them of being spies, one of the brothers stated remorsefully, "Indeed, we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen, that is why this trouble has come upon us." Reuven heard this and said, “I already told you [at the time] not to harm Yosef, but you did not listen….” Why would Reuven say this? Here his brothers are bemoaning the fact that they are in prison and attributing their situation to the fact that they mercilessly sold Yosef, and all Reuven can think to say is, “I told you so”? Is he trying to exalt himself over his brothers? Is he trying to kick them while they are down? How does his “I told you so” help resolve their situation?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Reuven was neither trying to rub his brothers’ noses in their mistake, nor was he trying to exalt himself over them. Instead, he was teaching them how to do teshuva properly. Reuven was the first of his brothers to do an act that required teshuva when he moved Bilhah’s bed out of Yaakov’s tent. Therefore, he had experience.
To do teshuva properly, one must freely choose to regret his wrongful act of his own accord and not because of pressure from an extrinsic factor that is overpowering his free choice and influencing him to acknowledge that his act was wrong. When a person chooses to acknowledge that his actions were wrong of his own accord, he will not do those acts again. On the other hand, when a person only acknowledges that his acts were wrong because of pressure from an external motivator, he may choose to do those acts again in the future.
Thus, when Reuven heard his brothers confessing their regret of selling Yosef because it resulted in them being imprisoned, Reuven explained that this form of teshuva was not enough. Reuven was telling them that if their regret of Yosef’s sale was the result of being in prison—extrinsic pressure—their teshuva would not be complete. They would merely be regretting being in prison, not their horrible acts toward Yosef. Thus, Reuven said, “I already told you [at the time—before you were in prison] that it was wrong to harm the child.” In other words, do teshuva because you recognize that the act was wrong already then, before you were in this overwhelming situation, not because you are being pressured by your current situation—sitting in prison—to acknowledge the wrongfulness of your actions.
Additionally, to do teshuva properly, one must take full responsibility for his actions and not blame any other mitigating factors or circumstances. As long as a person can shift all or even some of the blame to other mitigating factors, he cannot properly regret what he did because he does not fully acknowledge that he did something wrong. Thus, Reuven told his brothers, “I told you then not to harm Yosef, but you did not listen.” To do teshuva, you must take full responsibility for your actions and not shift any blame.
Accordingly, it is understood that Reuven was not merely trying to put his brothers down nor exalt himself. Instead, he was helping his brothers understand how to properly do teshuva for their actions. This entails (1) regretting the wrongful act itself because you, of your own true volition and will, recognize the act to be wrong; and (2) taking full responsibility for your actions without shifting any blame.
This past week we celebrated the holiday of Chanukah. At the time when the miracle of Chanukah occurred, the popular religion was Hellenism, and many of the Jews became Hellenists. A small group of Jews—the Maccabees—went against the grain of society and fought to maintain their Jewish way of life. They did not let their surrounding environment dictate how they would live. Instead, they chose to take responsibility—they took up arms and fought.
It is often easier to let our surrounding environment dictate how we should live. When we do, however, the “choices” we then make whether good or bad are not truly our own. Both Reuven’s message in this week’s parsha and the message of Chanukah is to take responsibility and willfully choose to do the right thing.
During this time when we must take steps to be physically distant from one another in order to maintain our health and safety—per the Torah’s instruction ונשמרתם מאוד על נפשותיכם—it is very easy to lose our חיות in our observance of the Torah and mitzvot. Recognizing these challenges, our school, and the KOSL in particular, took extra care to come up with fun ways to celebrate Chanukah at our school. Such initiatives included laser tag, Learning on the Lawn with Latkes, and a tie dye activity. We are very grateful and thankful to the KOSL, our faculty, and our students for making this year’s Chanukah celebration a most memorable experience.