The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

How could men as great as the tribes of Israel have committed the crime of selling a brother into slavery?
Why was it Yehudah who took the lead in saving Binyomin?
Why does Yehudah begin his soliloquy with the word “bi= please”; instead of the standard word for please “na“?

Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said בי אדני“Please, your highness, (alternatively; it is within me, my Master) please let me say something to you personally…”

— Bereishis 44:18

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

— Bereishis 43:8,9

I will have sinned against you for all time: For the world to come.  [from Bereishis Rabbah 91:10, in other words Yehudah staked his share in the world to come on Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov]

— Rashi ibid

When the Most High allocated nations their birthright and split up the sons of man, He set up the borders of nations to correspond to Israel’s descendants.

— Devarim 32:8

Yehudah said to his brothers “what gain is there in killing our brother [Yoseph] … let’s sell him to the Arabs … “

— Bereishis 37:26,27

 If one person kidnaps and sells another and [the victim] is seen in his hand then [the kidnapper] shall be put to death

— Shemos 21:16

… Rabi Yochanan said in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: Dovid was not the kind of man to do such an act [the sin with Bas-Sheva] nor was Israel the kind of nation to do such an act that act [the sin of the golden calf] … Why, then, did they commit these acts? [G-d predestined it so] in order to teach us that if an individual sinned [and hesitates about the possibility and efficacy of repentance] he could be referred to the individual [Dovid], and if a community commits a sin they should be told: Go to the community [the generation of the Exodus] … This accords with the following saying of Rabi Shmuel bar Nachmani, who said in the name of Rabi Yonoson: What is the meaning of the verse “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, and so said  the man raised on high”? [It means this:] “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, the man who elevated the yoke of repentance.”

— Avodah Zarah 4B-5A

“Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says HaShem of the legions. But you say: “How can we return?!”

— Malachi 3:7

Parashas Vayigash begins with Yehudah’s soliloquy in his dramatic and historic encounter with Yoseph. The encounter was dramatic because Yehudah was “all-in”; he was risking everything; both his freedom during the balance of his temporal life as well as his eternity. It was historic because, as it culminated in Yoseph’s revelation to, and rapprochement with, the rest of his brothers, it meant that the rip in the fabric of Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; had been repaired and made whole again.

The cosmic significance of the shivtei Kah-the branches/ tribes of G-d; cannot be overestimated. As we see clearly from the passuk that states that all of humanity’s borders and birthrights were merely intended to correspond to Israel’s descendants,  the shivtei Kah were kivyachol-so to speak; G-d’s objective in Creation. So while human nature is to forget the unpleasant details in “alls-well-that-ends-well” narratives, it is still extremely troubling to consider that the first chapter of this story began with what was apparently a heinous crime; a sin that is covered by the commandment of “Thou shall not steal” in the Decalogue and that is a capital offense. How could the shivtei Kah the — founders of our holy nation — still be venerated as holy, exalted souls after committing such a cardinal sin?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger approaches this nettlesome question using the precedent set by the Gemara-Talmud; in Masechaes Avodah Zarah.  At times when we see the righteous acting sinfully — completely out of character, we understand that the point of their behavior was not the kilkul-spiritual ruination; of the sin but the tikun-metaphysical repair; brought about by their teshuvah-repentance; for that sin. The powerful teshuvah that these spiritual giants accomplished serve as templates — how-to guides — and provide inspiration for latter-day sinners who would love nothing more than to do teshuvah themselves but find the task too complex, daunting or discouraging.

Rav Leibeleh asserts that Yehudah is the father of sinning for the sake of instructing others on the fine points of teshuvah. Yehudah took a leading role in the sale of Yoseph into slavery i.e. the sin; so that he, among all of the brothers, would be the one to blaze the trail for the teshuvah / tikun for that odious crime as well. The entire point of the episode was to open a new avenue for teshuvah and a closer reading of his astonishing encounter with Yoseph yields a valuable lesson in the dynamics of teshuvah.

After approaching Yoseph for their historic encounter the very first words that Yehudah uttered were בי אדניbi adoni. Translated in a hyper-literal way these words mean “it is within me my Master.” The roshei teivos-first letters of the words; in this phrase are beis and aleph; an inverted sequence of the first two letters of the aleph-beis-alphabet and therein lies an allusion to the teshuvah dynamic.

Both the alphabetical position of the letter aleph and it’s definition, point to the Divine Mashpia-the One who Overflows, Teaches and Influences; the Alupho shel Olam-the Master of the cosmos. While the letter beis, positioned second and meaning the inner dimension  or a home i.e. a container of the most treasured contents; alludes to human beings whose role it is to absorb G-d’s Exhalation, Overflow and Teaching.

The normative positioning of the letters of the aleph-beis represents a top-to-bottom movement. In contradistinction, the inverted positioning of the letters of the aleph-beis i.e. beis-aleph, as in the words bi adoni, represents a bottom-to-top progression which is the root of the tikun-teshuvah process. A chozer b’teshuvah-one returning in teshuvah; must cultivate a cockeyed, dyslexic perspective and see things in reverse. In teshuvah the sinner who has been brought low by his sin and alienated from HaShem on-High moves backwards and upwards towards rapprochement with HaShem, the One on High. The hope and faith that is the internal combustion engine of teshuvah is that after all the defects, harm and damage wrought by sin that an awakening from below — that a soul-stirring originating in the beis — can effect a complete return to the Aleph-Alupho shel Olam, to  G-d’s Holiness.

It is not only the roshei teivos of Yehudah’s words but the entirety of words that allude to the teshuvah dynamic. Bi -“it is within me” expresses the sinner’s faith that, as the Rebbe Reb Nachman Breslover taught, if he possessed the power to wreak havoc and ruin then he must possess the power to rebuild and repair. Bi is the sinners declaration of self-reliance that “bi hadavar taluy-it all depends on me; and that I have the power to stir my own soul, awaken all of my faculties and do it.” Adoni, meaning my Master, means that the bi can reconnect with and come back to the Holiness of the Master/Mashpia as a result of this awakening from below and the indomitable opening of an aperture through which to return.

Yehudah’s avodah-Divine service of bi adoni was not only a verbal manifestation of his teshuvah but it shone a retrospective light on the past revealing that the entire purpose of his and his brothers kilkul was to create an opportunity for this tikun and its core lessons for future chozrim b’teshuvah. The ability to teach these lessons lent transcendent meaning to both the brothers’ monstrous sin and to Yoseph’s excruciating suffering. Yoseph was now ready to reveal himself for who he truly was and reunite all of the brothers … the shivtei Kah. As they had been divided by kilkul and sin they would now be reunited through tikun and teshuvah.

~adapted from Imrei Emes Year 5626 (1866 A.C.E.) seudas leil Shabbos
Likutei MohRa”N II 112




5 comments on “The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

  1. Thank you for the link to a masterpiece by Rabbi Homnick. Not sure if it was intended to buttress or refute this post though.

  2. Bob I stand corrected. Thank you Bob and D’vorah. It’s easy sounding brilliant when one adapts the work of brilliant authors.

  3. A very enlightening article!

    But I have to quibble about “Yehudah’s soliloquy”

    Increasingly, I hear people use”soliloquy” when they mean “monologue.”

    A monologue is addressed to an audience. Here, Yehudah’s audience is Yoseph.

    A soliloquy is addressed to oneself, in earshot of the audience, to let the audience know the speaker’s inner thoughts. The speaker is not addressing the listener directly.

  4. As always, a brilliant explanation of the Parsha. The direction/ derech
    of the teshuva vs the sinner explained their midot.

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