The Debt

Dec 26th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays, Portion of the Week, Prayer
In our society, we assume that if someone saves another person’s life, then the person saved owes the person who saved them. However, in some societies, the opposite is true, the person who is saved is owed by the person who saved them. In fact, in some societies, if someone saves another’s life, he is considered responsible for taking care of that person forever.

Here’s a typical example, from a British missionary in Congo:

“A day or two after we reached Vana we found one of the na­tives very ill with pneumonia. Comber treated him and kept him alive on strong fowl-soup; a great deal of careful nursing and attention was visited on him, for his house was beside the camp. When we were ready to go on our way again, the man was well. To our astonishment he came and asked us for a present, and was as astonished and disgusted as he had made us to be, when we declined giving it. We suggested that it was his place to bring us a present and to show some gratitude. He said to us, ‘Well indeed! You white men have no shame!’


I wonder which approach Joseph took, and which, his brothers.

“I am Joseph your brother, it is me, whom you sold into Egypt. And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you. For this has been two of the hunger years in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. Thus, God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a momentous deliverance (Genesis 45 4–7).”

Joseph saves the lives of his brothers; he certainly had the right and the power to kill them for what they had done to him. Joseph has saved the lives of his brothers; he is the provider of all their food. Yet, despite the fact that he is the one who saved their lives, Joseph accepts responsibility to continue to feed and care for them. Joseph assumes that if God gave him the responsibility and opportunity to save their lives, that he was obligated to continue to care for them.

What about the brothers?

“He sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen; and they arrived in the region of Goshen (46:28).” Jacob sent Judah to prepare: Jacob was teaching his children that they were now obligated to Joseph, not only because they had sold him into slavery, but because he had saved their lives.

I suspect that this obligation, that Jacob imposed on the brothers, is one of the reasons that the brothers never felt completely at peace with Joseph; they lived under this burden of obligation. I also suspect that the reason Joseph took his approach, that he was obligated to them, was so that they would not feel crushed by their obligation to him.

Konica is also the Jewish Thanksgiving. Which approach does God take for having given life to us? Are we to feel crushed by our obligation to Him?

That, is the most significant lesson taught by Joseph; God is obligated to us! “I created you and I shall bear you; I shall endure and rescue (Isaiah 46:4).” It is for this reason that we are able to trust that God will provide all our needs.

Is this not why we declare in “Modim,” not only what God has done to give us life, but also all that we are confident that He will continue to do for all of His creation?

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