Hoisted By My Own Petard

Dec 17th, 2009 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week, Reflections & Observations
I have yet to write thank you notes for my bar mitzvah gifts and now I have to write even more cards for the gifts I received for my 50th birthday. I wrote a newsletter about birthdays that made it clear, kind of, that I didn’t want any presents. People, cruel as they are, didn’t bother to read the newsletter or chose to not take it seriously. I now have a problem. I could take the same approach as I did after my bar mitzvah and wait a few years before writing thank you notes. The problem is that I have been posting many essays on Hoda’ah – gratitude – in honor of Chanukah, and it just wouldn’t seem proper to wait 37 years before expressing my gratitude. I have, as they say, been hoisted by my own petard!

By the way; I had what I then considered fantastic reasons for not writing my bar mitzvah thank you notes, but that is an entirely different, and currently embarrassing story. It was, believe it or not, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s fault.

I am not alone. Joseph’s brothers had a similar experience in this week’s portion. They too were hoisted by their own petard: “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed: that is why this anguish has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)

How did they respond? Reuben is not impressed with their words, “Did I not speak to you saying, ‘Do not sin against the boy,’ but you did not listen! And his blood as well – behold! – is being avenged.” (Verse 22)

The brothers feel guilty for ignoring Joseph’s anguished cries, but Reuben, who wasn’t present when Joseph cried out from the bottom of the pit, remonstrates them for sinning against Joseph at all.

Why did Reuben choose to use this dangerous moment to get in an “I told you so?” The verses do not describe the brothers responding to Reuben or even considering what to do. These great men seem to understand that they are being punished, but it doesn’t seem as if they act as a result of their honest introspection.

The brothers’ response is more impressive than Reuben’s. They focused on a specific part of their sin, “we paid no heed,” something from which they could learn for the future. They would become better listeners.

Reuben, on the other hand, was angry with them about something they could not undo, nor apply in the present, unless they were considering doing to Reuben what they had done to Joseph.

The Sages refer to the petard experience as “Midah Kineged Midah,” – God responds to the realities we create. (This is quite different from, “B’midah sh’adam modaid, kach modidin lo,” – Heaven responds measure for measure.)

The brothers understood that they were experiencing Midah kineged Midah, and immediately focused on the practical lesson of the situation. Not regret, “We should have,” or “We shouldn’t have,” but, we can fix what we once did.

I guess I’ll have to write those thank you notes. I’m going to be busy for a while.

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