5769 - #11


The classic story of Yosef and his brothers is a powerful presentation of the process of teshuva. The entire last section of Chumash Bereishit is a story of development in which many dimensions unfold, touching upon each of the brothers in different ways -- especially if we also include the story of Tamar,1 which seems, at first, to be solely an interruptive side story placed within the body of the greater story. We have been and continue to be introduced to weaknesses in these great individuals, yet with the goal of instruction. Through the important lessons embedded in this extensive presentation -- within the text and in the midrashim and meforshim, commentaries – we are taught a significant message on the necessary process of continuous evaluation and transformation that we describe as teshuva. Yosef, Yehuda, Reuven, Shimon, even to some extent, Yaakov Avinu are presented as positive examples of the dynamic nature of life. Life is about change. Life is about teshuva.    

            While this realization, that the story’s, and life’s, specific focus on teshuva, is of major significance in our reading of this text, there is another aspect of the story that also demands our attention, especially in its effect on our understanding of teshuva. Bereishit 37:2 specifically uses the word na’ar, youth, in describing the behaviour of Yosef at seventeen.2 Rashi explains that the verse is referring to Yosef’s behaviour similar to other adolescents, specifically that he was concerned with his appearance. Maharal, Gur Aryeh, though, applies this critique of Yosef’s youthfulness more broadly. He maintains that the verse explains that Yosef acted like a na’ar in one way to indicate that he also acted like a na’ar in another, more serious way – namely in judging his brothers in an unfavourable manner which contributed to the rift amongst the brothers. Yet, are Yosef’s actions, thus, simply to be seen as the inherent result of being young? How can Yosef then be faulted for just acting his age? Of course, acting foolishly at any age still has its consequences, but can Yosef’s subsequent transformation still be described as teshuva? Maybe Yosef’s transformation, and the concurrent one in the brothers, was just the result of maturity?    

            When most people consider teshuva, they do so in a vacuum; they do so in the context of a narrow transformation focusing solely on the desired change in a specific action, value or midda, character trait. Yesterday, this person was driven to eat something non-kosher; today, the process of teshuva resulted in this person experiencing a similar drive and deciding not to eat this non-kosher item. In approaching this question, we usually assume that all else was and is the same.3 The problem is, though, that everything else is already not the same. Just in the process of aging, of maturing, we change. The dynamic nature of life is not only demonstrated in the manifestations of our actions but is actually inherent in our being. Even without the conscious directed process of teshuva, we change. Our actions, values and middot inherently go through transformations. We can, thus, ask: were the changes in Yosef and the brothers truly a result of teshuva – or did they simply mature? If the story is simply one of maturation then, while still, perhaps, most interesting, the lessons that we can learn from it are more limited. More significantly, though, it may be a story that integrates the process of teshuva with the process of maturation, thus presenting an even deeper lesson than we may have first understood.

            Interestingly, some commentators understand the word na’ar as only properly applicable to someone of a younger age than seventeen.4 Yosef’s actions, thus, can be defined as not age appropriate and therefore, it would seem, Yosef would be subject to culpability for inappropriately acting childishly when, in fact, he was more mature. This critique would be one that would clearly demand teshuva. In applying this understanding of the use of the word na’ar, there would seem to be a recognition that a moral expectation of a person must be sensitive to that person’s age and acting childishly, when one is a child, would not be culpable and thus would not demand teshuva. Change does still occur, though, through the process of maturation but that is separate from teshuva. The demand for teshuva arises when one, who is no longer a child, continues to act in a childish manner. In maintaining that Yosef’s behaviour was not age-appropriate even at seventeen, the story does again become one solely regarding teshuva. Yet many commentators do understand the Torah’s description of Yosef acting like a na’ar as meaning that he was acting like an adolescent, a boy of seventeen. One could also see the brothers in a similar light.5 We thus return to our question: how does maturity connect to teshuva?

            Yosef’s concern for his appearance actually arises again at a later age. Bereishit 39:6,7 informs us of Yosef’s good looks, eventually leading to his downfall in the House of Potiphar. Rashi explains that this positive appearance was actually the result of a conscious effort on the part of Yosef and for that he was culpable. What, though, was the connection between Yosef’s concern for appearance at seventeen and the one he demonstrated later in life? A simple response would be that Yosef just continued to act as a na’ar even when it was completely not age-appropriate. Immaturity is culpable. Rashi, though, does not say this. The reason he gives for Yosef’s culpability is very specific; this was not appropriate behaviour in this specific situation. Is there, though, still a connection between this action and Yosef’s behaviour at seventeen? The answer to that question may actually explain the relationship between maturity and teshuva.

            Life is not only dynamic because of the process of teshuva that we are to impose upon it. Our very being itself is dynamic. We go through stages from childhood to old age. The question is not just how we are to behave but also what we are to carry from stage to stage. There is also the demand to recognize future stages and consider what will be. Maturity is the process of the stages. Teshuva, though, includes the conscious recognition of these stages and their interconnection in one life. The question is not whether Yosef was concerned about his appearance at seventeen but rather how Yosef connected this concern with his mature self.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  Bereishit 38:12-27.
What this verse is specifically stating, including the exact meaning of the word na’ar in this contest is a matter of disagreement reflected in the various different ways that the verse is translated. The verse, no doubt, is expressing, though, some idea connected to the age of adolescence which is a standard meaning for the term na’ar.
This perception that “all else is the same” would actually seem to be significantly reinforced in the definition of complete teshuva as only being achieved when everything else is the same and still the person did not repeat his/her sin. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:1.
(4) See, further, the discussion in Mizrachi, Bereishit 37:2.
(5) There are motivations to understand Torah Temima, Bereishit 37:12, note 14 in this way.

(c) Nishma, 2008.

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