When the brothers arrive in Egypt to purchase food and supplies, Yosef accuses them of being spies and tosses them in jail for three days. He then offers them a way to prove their innocence: leave one brother behind and come back with the youngest brother they had left at home.
Hearing this, the brothers say something interesting:
And each one said to his brother, “But we are guilty because of our brother; when we saw the unfortunate state of his soul, when he begged us but we did not listen. This is why this misfortune befalls us.” (Gen. 42:21)
This is happening because we are guilty, the brothers say. We ignored our brother Joseph’s pain and pleas when he begged us to help him.
There is something odd about the way in which the brothers introduce this comment to each other: aval ashemim anachnu – but we are guilty. The word aval – however, rather, or but – would usually come to introduce an idea that conflicts with or contradicts whatever was just said. But there was no such phrase. Who said anything about their guilt, that they did not bear it, such that now they should protest that it is not the case! But we are guilty, the brothers proclaim!
This reads as a non-sequitor: apropos of nothing, in response to nothing, the brothers say, “But we really are guilty.”
Who or what are the brothers responding to?
I would like to suggest that they were speaking to themselves.
In general, as we know well from our own experiences and from modern psychological literature, we think of ourselves as good people, innocent, the good guy in our stories. It is often difficult and painful for us to admit fault, to take responsibility for our failures, to see ourselves or our prior behaviors as guilty.
Let us imagine what the brothers were up to: They came down to Egypt to get some food when a seemingly unstable dictator accused them, for no apparent reason, of being spies. This dictator displays an inexplicable fascination with their little brother who, of course, he has never met and should have no interest in.
So what did they think?
They thought what we all think when something bad happens: this is someone else’s fault. In this case, it’s the fault of an insane tyrant they had the unfortunate luck to meet. The conversation here indicates that somewhere within their minds they considered a different explanation, that their guilt for their actions against their brother were to blame for their current predicament. Until this moment, however, the brothers did not verbalize this intuition. Perhaps they were not even aware that there were thinking it, as such thoughts may float around our subconscious without quite making it to the forefront of our minds.
In the Moreh Nevuchim (3:12), the Rambam argues that there are three primary reasons bad things happen to us. Sometimes bad things happen because no physical being is free of pain. That which comes into this world must also, often most painfully, leave it, as no physical thing is eternal and free of flaws that cause it to pass away from being.
Sometimes, and even more often, he says, bad things happen to us because people do bad and harmful things to us. Evil people attack others, thieves steal, and so on. Even careful people do careless things, and this hurts us. It’s this cause of pain and harm that the brothers first think they are dealing with.
But then there is a third reason that the Rambam lists.
He says that the third cause of evil – and he says that this is actually the main reason we suffer in our lives – is our own choices, behaviors, and habits. We eat too much, sleep too little, allow ourselves to remain impatient or get angry, we ignore our loved ones, even ourselves and our deepest dreams. We spend so much time and energy pursuing things that we don’t even care about and produce so many unwanted chickens that will eventually come home to roost.
Undoubtedly, the brothers met this crazed dictator and reasonably concluded that this is how life goes sometimes; sometimes we run into terrible people or even decent people who do terrible things. Sometimes we are the victims of their erratic and difficult behaviors. But then they did something remarkable.
After spending a few days in prison, they thought of the bor, the pit in which they had thrown their own brother so long ago. It was not because of that viceroy that they suffered, after all!
But we are guilty. This is because of what we have done.
There is something heroic in a person facing an erratic and dangerous personality, suffering, seeing just how vulnerable he is, and then identifying that he himself planted the seeds of his current predicament. This is what the brothers do, and we should not sell them short for it. Not many are able to look in the mirror and be so honest with themselves, certainly not when they are in so much pain, or when there are other possible explanations that do not incriminate them.
No doubt, we are all carrying around various burdens. As the Rambam says, we cannot escape such things. A physical existence will take its toll; living with others means we are vulnerable to them hurting us. The difficult thing, however, is recognizing that we play the largest role in our well-being. We spend more time with ourselves than anyone and our previous decisions impact us more than they do anyone else. If we can muster up the strength to consider our own role in causing our difficulties, then, much like the brothers, we may soon find ourselves in a much more fortunate situation.
After all, we have a book which guides us in wisdom and toward peace. Living by it is easier said than done. Still, there is no question that the person who cultivates a relationship with G-d, studies what is right and pursues it, avoids gossip, acts with kindness and charity, and knows how to grant forgiveness, and how to ask for it, will be better off than the one who does not.