Saturday, August 08, 2009

Joseph, Eved Ivri & Teshuva

(Thank you so much, Dana! It was through my discussion with you today that I realized this. For y'all: Dana is one of my apartment mates. Also, thanks to the commentators on this blog- it was due to y'all that theft was on my mind.)


The Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) writes about the amazing ability of teshuva. He states as follows:
    The first principle of repentance is that the sinner be divested of his status as a rasha. This can only be attained if the sinner terminates his past identity and assumes a new identity for the future. It is a creative gesture which is responsible for the emergence of a new personality, a new self. This creative gesture is precipitated by an absolute decision of the will and intellect together. “What is repentance? It consists in this: that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it…that he regret the past…and that he call the One who knows all secrets as a witness to his resolve never to return to this sin again…It is also necessary that he make verbal confession and utter these matters which he had decided in his heart. The abandonment of sin (i.e., the resolve for the future) and the regret over the past divest the sinner of his status as a rasha. They “sever” his spiritual continuity and transform his identity (and He who knows all secrets will bear witness to this act of creation.) Verbal confession is directed toward precipitating the bestowal of atonement. Atonement, however, is only a peripheral aspect of repentance. Its central aspect is the termination of a negative personality, the sinner’s divesting himself of his status as a rasha- indeed, the total obliteration of that status. “Some of the modes of manifesting repentance are that the peitent…changes his name, as much as to say: ‘I am another person and am not the same man who committed these deeds.” The desire to be another person, to be different than I am now, is the central motif of repentance. Man cancels the law of identity and continuity which prevails in the “I” awareness by engaging in the wondrous, creative act of repentance. A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception. When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.” [emph. mine]

    ~Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, page 112
It occurred to me that the greatest proof for the Rav's understanding of teshuva is the idea of an Eved Ivri. An Eved Ivri is often one who has stolen from another person but lacks the funds to pay back what he has stolen. He therefore becomes an indentured servant; his wages are payable to the family that he has stolen from. The amazing thing is that the fact that he is accepted as an indentured servant assumes that he has done perfect teshuva. Who would want to hire a thief as a servant? Don't we often hear stories of people firing their servants due to the fact that they've stolen from him? The family who does take this man in as a servant assumes that he has done perfect teshuva and recreated himself; he will not steal again. That is why he is placed in this position of trust.

To understand the kind of trust afforded to a servant, we can take a look back at arguably the first Eved Ivri. That would be Joseph. Obviously Joseph was not sold into servitude to another Jewish family, but very interestingly the text refers to him in these terms- he is specifically described as 'Eved' and titled 'Ivri' by the butler. See Genesis 41: 12:
    יב וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּר-לוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּר-לָנוּ אֶת-חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר. 12 And there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret.
Now, remember how much Potiphar trusted Joseph as a servant- everything except 'lechem,' his master's wife, was within his hands. See Genesis 39: 8-9:
    ח וַיְמָאֵן--וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו, הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא-יָדַע אִתִּי מַה-בַּבָּיִת; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֶשׁ-לוֹ, נָתַן בְּיָדִי. 8 But he refused, and said unto his master's wife: 'Behold, my master, having me, knoweth not what is in the house, and he hath put all that he hath into my hand;

    ט אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה, מִמֶּנִּי, וְלֹא-חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה, כִּי אִם-אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ-אִשְׁתּוֹ; וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה, הַזֹּאת, וְחָטָאתִי, לֵאלֹהִים. 9 he is not greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?'
So too the Eved Ivri! He is a servant but he too can be placed in positions of great trust. Thus we assume he is a new man, someone who has done perfect teshuva; he will not steal again. We may trust him in our house and he will not betray our trust.

Note that Joseph, the first 'Eved Ivri' is chastened due to the fact that he placed his trust in mortal men (the butler) as opposed to God. See commentaries to Genesis 40: 23:
    כג וְלֹא-זָכַר שַׂר-הַמַּשְׁקִים אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵהוּ. {פ} 23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him.
Similarly, if our Eved Ivri chooses to stay on with his host family as opposed to becoming a free man after six years, we must bore a hole in his ear as a sign of the fact that he has chosen mortal men over God. However, I believe there is something more fundamental to the problem that occurs when an Eved Ivri chooses to stay on with his host family: it is a sign that he has not done perfect teshuva.

How do I mean? The Eved Ivri was first sent to that family due to the fact that he was a thief. He stole. He was there to work off his debt. In choosing to remain with his host family, he shows that he has not changed. He is still stealing, except this time he steals from God. God requires of man to serve Him; He is man's only master. The Eved Ivri is claiming ownership of something that does not truly belong to him- his body and his work- and choosing to give them over to the host family rather than becoming a free man to serve God. His essence has not changed; he has not fully completed the process of teshuva. In effect, he is stealing from God- stealing what is rightfully owed God and giving it to the host master instead.

While we allow him to do this, we realize that his teshuva is imperfect, and that is what the hole bored in his ear signifies. This man was accepted into the host family as a repentant person who had not sinned (due to his recreation of self). However, in choosing not to leave the host family, he demonstrates that the character traits that led him to steal are still within him; he has not totally recreated himself. This is where he is lacking. In choosing not to return to God, he continues to 'steal.'

1 comment:

Dana said...

thanks Chana~!! but this pearl of wisdom belongs solely to you :)