The tragic story of Yosef and his brothers gives us plenty to think about going into the fast of Asarah Be’Tevet. It’s the shortest fast day on the Jewish calendar, but is by no means the least important.

In fact, our tradition teaches that theoretically, if Asarah Be’Tevet falls on Shabbat, we would still fast.  Practically, the way the calendar is structured this could never happen.  But in principle, Asarah Be’Tevet shares this unique property with Yom Kippur; they are the only two fasts that override the requirement to feast on Shabbat!

What do we commemorate through the Asarah Be’Tevet fast, and why is it so significant?

The events of this day are briefly described by the prophet Yehezkel (24:2), who says that on the 10th of Tevet, “samach melech Bavel el Yerushalayim – the Babylonian emperor laid siege to Jerusalem.”  On this day, the Babylonian emperor Nevuchadnetzar surrounded the wall of Jerusalem with his large, fierce army, effectively beginning the process that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.  In short, the fall of the Bet Hamikdashand the Babylonian exile began on this day.

Supporting and Breaking the Wall

But the prophet’s curious terminology did not escape the keen, discerning eyes of our commentators.  The word “samach” in this context means “besiege,” but it is more commonly used to mean “support.”  It could hardly be coincidental that the prophet chose this particular term in referring to the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, but the question begs itself, how could the context of this verse possibly accommodate the meaning of “support”?  Nevuchadnetzar came to destroy the wall of the Jerusalem (and the city itself), certainly not to support it!

The answer is that whenever calamity befell the Jewish people, it was a moment of squandered potential.  If tragedy strikes, it means that there was an opportunity for spiritual greatness, an especially propitious time for elevation and achievement, but the opportunity was wasted, resulting in tragedy.  For example, several generations before Nevuchadnetzar’s assault, the Assyrian Empire, led by Sanheriv, besieged Jerusalem with 180,000 soldiers.  The Jews in the city, under the leadership of King Hizkiyahu, stood firm in their belief in Gd, and the city was miraculously spared.  They achieved such great spiritual heights at the time that Gd nearly proclaimed Hizkiyahu the Mashiahand brought the Messianic Era.  In the time of Nevuchadnetzar’s siege, too, the Jews had the unique opportunity to achieve greatness, but they failed to seize it, resulting in a devastating tragedy.

And thus the prophet describes Nevuchadnetzar’s offensive with the term “samach.”  The Babylonian Empire at that moment was in a position to either destroy Jerusalem or “support” it.  This had the potential to be either a moment of great achievement or a moment of great catastrophe.  Tragically, the Jews squandered the opportunity for the former, and therefore had to suffer the dreadful consequences of the latter.

Why would a siege offer the opportunity for greatness?  What is it about this particular kind of threat that has the potential to elevate the Jewish people?

A siege is uniquely suited for fomenting unity and cohesiveness.  The residents are trapped and in crisis, and must work together to find a solution.  They are all in the same proverbial boat, threatened by a common enemy and facing the prospect of the same horrific fate.  There is perhaps no greater trigger of unity and cooperation than the feeling of being besieged.  Once the siege is in place, the differences and petty arguments suddenly seem meaningless.  Everyone is all together, and must come together as a team to overcome the crisis.  If the people rise to the occasion, they can work together to “support” their wall.  They can transform the harsh reality of being besieged into a great blessing, and seize this opportunity to spread love and respect across party lines.

This is what happened during the time of Hizkiyahu.  He led the people toward unity and cohesiveness, and the city was spared.

But this is not what happened during the Babylonian siege.  The people remained divided, and thus instead of “supporting” the wall, they caused it to crumble.  The Babylonians then marched in, and eventually set the Temple ablaze.

Atoning for the Sale of Yosef

The prophet Zecharyah foresaw the time when the fast of Asarah Be’Tevet, like the other fast days, will be transformed into an occasion of great festivity and celebration.  He concludes this prophecy by admonishing, “veha’emet ve’hashalom ehavu – but you must love truth and peace.”  The great potential of these days will yet be realized, but on the condition that we commit ourselves to “truth and peace,” to proper ethical behavior and maintaining peaceful relations among ourselves.  By correcting the mistakes made by our ancestors, we can finally seize the opportunity presented by these occasions and bring our long-awaited redemption.

But to accomplish this, we need to explore the root of the problem, the origins of acrimony and strife among Jews.

Rav Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in his Meshech Hochmah, writes that all interpersonal offenses have their roots in the incident which we have been reading about in the weekly Torah portion – the sale of Yosef (mechirat Yosef).    Every sin a Jew commits against his fellow is a product of that sin committed by our otherwise righteous forebears, when ten brothers conspired to sell another as a slave.  This concept, of the lingering effects of this sin that still remain with us to this day, is manifest in several different ways.  Each year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, a goat was sent out into the wilderness to symbolically banish all our sins.  This goat, the Meshech Hochmahcomments, is reminiscent of the goat which the brothers slaughtered after selling Yosef, so they could dip his cloak in its blood and make it appear as though he was devoured by an animal.  Additionally, there was a special red cloth hung in the Bet Hamikdash which would miraculously turn white when the goat reached the desert, which announced to the people that their sins were forgiven.  Our Sages teach that this cloth weighed two sela’im – the precise same weight as Yosef’s special cloak (the ketonet pasim).  Once again, as we seek to achieve atonement for the offenses committed against our fellow Jew, we must atone for the root cause of all such offenses, the sale of Yosef.

For this same reason, the Bet Hamikdashwas situated specifically in the portion of the tribe of Binyamin.  Binyamin was the only one of the brothers who did not participate in the sale of Yosef.  He was still young, and was home with his father at the time the other brothers sold Yosef to the Yishmaelite merchants.  Binyamin was thus the only brother who did not have the stain of this incident on his record.  And therefore our holy Temple, the place where we serve the Almighty and beg for forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed, was located specifically in Binyamin’s territory, the territory that was clean from this grave sin of betrayal against a brother.

Our tradition also teaches us that the asarah haruge malchut – the ten righteous sages executed by the Romans – were killed to atone for this sin.  These ten men included some of the most righteous and brilliant scholars our nation has ever produced, such as Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol and Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon.  These ten tadikiimwere brutally tortured to death – to atone for the sin of mechirat Yosef.  The scourge of strife and in-fighting continued to run rampant among the Jewish nation even during that period, and ten righteous sages were taken to atone for the sin committed by Yosef’s ten righteous brothers, which was the root cause of all fighting and discord among the Jewish people.

Was There Reconciliation?

Anyone who has studied the story of Yosef and his brothers might be troubled by this notion.  Is it really true that the brothers’ sin against Yosef continues to plague us?  Wasn’t this sin forgiven already in Egypt, when the parties were still alive?  Didn’t Yosef and his brothers make up?

Indeed, it would certainly appear so.  In Parashat Vayehi, in the final chapter in this story, we read that after Yaakov died, Yosef’s brothers were afraid that with their father gone, Yosef would seize the opportunity to get even.  As the second most powerful man in the world, upon whom the brothers relied for their livelihood, Yosef was in the ideal position to exact revenge for his mistreatment by his brothers.  Terrified of this prospect, the brothers tearfully approached Yosef and begged for his forgiveness, stating that Yaakov had left instructions demanding that he pardon his brothers.

Yosef’s response to his brothers’ plea, on the surface, seems straightforward and unequivocal:

Yosef said to them: “Do not fear, for am I in Gd’s place?  You plotted evil against me, but Gd plotted goodness… And now, do not fear, I will support you and your children.”  He comforted them and spoke to their heart.

(Beresheet 50:19-21)

As mentioned, it certainly appears as though Yosef and his brothers achieved complete reconciliation, putting the unfortunate incident of mechirat Yosef fully behind them, buried in the past, out of sight and out of mind, forever.

But if so, then why do we continue to suffer the ills of hostility and acrimony among our people, which, as mentioned, results from mechirat Yosef?  Why does the plague of brotherly hate continue to rage among our people if the story of Yosef and brothers ended on a note of reconciliation?

The answer comes to us from a surprising but ever so powerful remark by one of the great Spanish commentators, Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340), who writes that there is one word conspicuously absent from Yosef’s response to his brothers: “Mahalti– I forgive.”  True, he affirmed that it was Gd’s plan to bring the family to Egypt to save them from famine, and reassured them that he would continue supporting them and their families.  But he never said that he forgave them.  Our halachic tradition states very clearly that an offender is not forgiven for a wrong committed against his fellow without receiving the victim’s forgiveness.  He could pray, cry and confess all day long for weeks on end, but the sin will remain on his record until the victim grants forgiveness.  And thus, Rabbenu Bahya writes, the stain of mechirat Yosefwas never completely eliminated.  Yosef did not exact revenge, but neither did he completely forgive.

Whatever[DS1] the reason why Yosef refused to forgive, Rabbenu Bahya’s insight gives us a lot to think about as we attempt to once and for all rid ourselves of the effects of mechirat Yosef.  This effort depends not only on our ability to avoid causing any sort of harm toward our fellow Jew, but also to say – sincerely – those three words which are always so difficult to get out of our mouths: “I forgive you.”  The obligation of ahavat Yisrael – loving one’s fellow Jew – falls upon the victim as much as it falls upon the perpetrator.  Both are obliged to utter three crucial words: one must say, “I was wrong,” and the other, “I forgive you.”  Both phrases are very difficult to verbalize, and this might very well be why the ill of baseless hatred has proven so hard to overcome.

We wish it weren’t so, but the Book of Beresheet does not end on the happy note we want it to.  The brothers live together in Egypt peacefully, but, as Rabbenu Bahya teaches, an undercurrent of tension remained.  The wounds never completely healed.  The tragedy of mechirat Yosef was not consigned to past history.  True reconciliation was not achieved.  And if we seek to rectify mechirat Yosef, we must be able to do just that – to move on and bury the hostility deep in the past, where it belongs.  No relationship – among family members, neighbors, associates, or community members – will ever be perfect.  If the righteous sons of Yaakov Avinu, founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, could find themselves embroiled in tension and acrimony, then we are certainly vulnerable to mistakes, and all the more so.  And the key is to not only endeavor to avoid such mistakes, but also move on after mistakes were made, which requires the courage of both parties to admit wrongdoing and forgive wrongdoing.  Too often, the cause of broken relationships is not an offense committed, but the parties’ inability to move on after an offense is committed.  Strained relationships can be repaired, as long as those three magic words are said sincerely: “I was wrong,” and “I forgive you.”

Our Patriarch’s Parting Message

The Torah records the famous blessings that Yaakov Avinu bestowed upon his sons before his death.  Immediately after the blessings, the Torah writes, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them – he gave each his appropriate blessing” (49:28).  This entire verse seems, at first glance, redundant, introducing no information of which we were not yet aware.  The explanation, I believe, is that the Torah is telling us what Yaakov said to his sons after giving each his own personal blessing: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel.”  He was telling them that although each tribe received an individual blessing in accordance with its individual strengths and talents, they all are and must always be “the tribes of Israel,” united under the single banner of Am Yisrael.  As long as they all strive to serve their Creator following the spiritual legacy of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, they must remain together and united despite their differences.

There are many messages that Yaakov, the final of the three patriarchs, could have chosen as his parting words before his passing.  But he pointed specifically to this message of ahdut, of unity among his children.  He saw how strife and discord drove the family into exile, and realized that unity and mutual respect would rescue them from exile.  And thus from among all the many values and obligations that Judaism encompasses, he decided to focus on ahavat Yisraelas his parting message.

There will always been differences of opinion and differences in approach separating us, and there will, invariably, be mistakes made.  But we must remember that we are all surrounded by the same “wall,” we are, at the end of the day, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov trying to serve Gd.  Let us heed our patriarch’s parting words and learn to respect all “twelve tribes.”  It is easy to get along with people who think and act exactly like us, and with those who never do anything wrong, but if those are the only ones we get along with, we will find ourselves very lonely.  We must learn to love, care for and respect even those with whom we disagree, and even those with whom we have a history of grievance.  Let us remove the walls that separate us so we may be granted the privilege to assemble together within the walls of Jerusalem, serving Gd together, in love, peace and unity, speedily and in our days, amen.

 [DS1]I embellished a bit here, as this is the “punchline” of the shiur.