10 Sep Mistakes: Ashamnu
“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.” (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière)
Genesis 42: 1 When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” 2 He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”
3 Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. 5 So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also.
6 Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. 7 As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”
8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 9 Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
10 “No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”
12 “No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
13 But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.”
14 Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! 15 And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” 17 And he put them all in custody for three days.
18 On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. 20 But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do.
21 They said to one another, “Surely we are guilty (Asheimim) because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”
The brothers acknowledge their guilt for refusing to listen to Joseph’s cries even though they saw his distress. They did not say that they were guilty for not listening, but for not listening after they saw Joseph’s suffering.
We are approaching the Vidui as a way of learning from our mistakes: Did the brothers learn from this mistake? Did they change after acknowledging their sin?
The brothers “Knew” they were right when they threw their brother into the pit. They saw him as destructive, dangerous to the family’s unity. The Sages describe the brothers as convening a Court and sentencing Joseph to death!
They are do not openly state that they were wrong for getting rid of Joseph, only for ignoring his cries even after they saw his agony. It is difficult to pay attention when you know you are right!
Reuben attempts to have them consider that they were altogether wrong, “Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood,” but he is ignored. As far as the brothers are concerned, they were guilty only for ignoring Joseph’s cries even after seeing his suffering.
Did they attempt to repair their sin?
They did: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father (50:15-16).” Rashi says that they sent the children of Bilhah to speak to Joseph, because he had always been very friendly with them.
I believe that the choice of the sons of Bilhah was an attempt to repair the sin described above. Joseph surely suffered when he realized that his brothers wanted to kill him, but suffered most from the hatred, or, at the very least, the silence of the brothers with whom he was friendly. The choice of these brothers, who had hurt Joseph the most was an indication that they were paying attention to Joseph’s experience; his pain, his response. They were attempting to repair the lack of sensitivity they displayed when they ignored his cries by demonstrating that they were now paying attention to his emotions. This was the rectification of their Ashamnu.
It is only when they attempt to repair the Ashamnu that they first acknowledge that they were wrong: “I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.”
The lack of sensitivity and compassion for Joseph prevented them from reconsidering their decision. Once they repaired the Ashamnu, they were able to reevaluate all their actions.
There are times when we reach a decision and act so convinced that we are correct that we ignore the effects of our decisions on others. That is Ashamnu. (Five of the six Asham Offerings are associated with the impact of our decisions on others. The sixth, Asham Talui, the Doubt Asham, is focused on dealing with doubting a “right” decision.)
A person is so careful with the laws of negative speech that he will not share information when asked for a recommendation for a Shidduch or a business transaction.
A person accepts new religious stringencies without considering the impact on his or her spouse.
The point of reciting Ashamnu is to identify such moments and commit to take specific action to rectify the lack of sensitivity. The Tikkun can be to commit to being a better listener, or to review important decisions with the people who will be most affected by the decision.
“Ashamnu; I have acted without being sufficiently sensitive to the impact of my decisions and actions on others. I commit to repair this sin by paying more attention to the reactions of others to my decisions.”
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