Dealing With Big Mistakes

The Torah epic of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is an epic of tragic mistake after tragic mistake. Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph and gave him the (in)famous coat. Joseph dreamed of reigning over his brothers, of them all bowing down to him. He then had the political bad sense to actually tell them these dreams, which further fanned the flames.

Then, Jacob sends him alone to check up on the brothers working with the flocks near Shechem. He's appointed, it seems, Joseph to be his supervisor, and sends him unarmed to be with his already hate-filled brothers. And then they err in allowing their anger to dominate them and nearly kill Joseph, choosing at the last minute to sell him to slavery...

Lives are ruined, relationships never to properly recover, Jacob about to spend years in mourning for a son who is not dead, and jealous brothers refusing to admit their deed, comfort their father and do what they can to find Joseph and reunite the family.

Yes, these were all tremendous, life-changing mistakes that indeed did doom many of the participants to years of guilt.

And, yet, if one thinks about it, each of these mistakes was an inexorable part of Joseph's path to the premiership of Egypt, of the ultimate saving of untold thousands of souls from starvation during a famine, and of the literal fulfillment of Joseph's original dreams! In fact, had Jacob been a fairer parent, and had Joseph been more modest, this happy ending might not have ever come to pass!

To be sure, God has many ways to see His will fulfilled, so this was not the only scenario. Nonetheless, it is the way it happened, so how should we understand it?

I think that all of these deeds are the result of Jacob's mode of operation in his early life. He was, as you may recall, born clasping Esav's heel. He was a bit of a manipulator, from getting the birthright from Esav for some soup, to getting the blessings from Isaac by a ruse, to getting his wages and his way with Lavan.

Another fact to remember is Jacob's superhuman strength when he saw Rachel for the first time. It was more than just love that moved him, it was the confidence and the feeling of destiny when he saw God's providence and his future combined in Rachel's eyes. Whenever Jacob got confirmation from God that he was on the right path, he was always filled with inspiration.

But things got confusing for Jacob, as Lavan switched his bride at the ceremony and he married Leah instead. All of the children that were born to Leah and the two maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah were not part of Jacob's original desire. He had wanted to marry only Rachel. Thus, it was Rachel's son, Joseph, in whom Jacob saw the future confirmed again. It excited him, and he showed favoritism.

Joseph, too, had this awareness about himself. He knew he had a major part to play in God's running of the world, and it excited him. He could not keep his mouth shut, even when he should have sensed it politic to do so.

None of this is to make excuses, but to show something. Each person here made a mistake, and that mistake was a human one with Divine consequences. That is the meaning of "Remove the Satan from behind us." As the Talmudic sage Nachum of Gimzo was wont to say, "This, too, is for the good." We should stop beating ourselves up about the past, because we cannot change the past. We can only change our reaction to it, and our direction for the future. Guilt that does not motivate better behavior is unhealthy, and does not allow one to recognize the Divine gift of free choice to change our present and future.

We all make mistakes, and we should try to do better. But if, after the test was taken, we have failed, it is proper to look forward. What good can come out of this? How can I learn to do better next time? How can I deepen this ruptured relationship? May Hashem help us remove the Satan of helpless guilt from behind us, and help us look to the future. We may just see a tremendous opportunity sprouting in the ashes of a past mistake.