The term tshuva, which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition, is often translated inadequately as repentance, but literally means return in the sense of a return to the path of right living. The religious concept of returning to God (by returning to the path of right living) is seemingly not developed or elaborated upon at great length in the Bible. However, the concept is elaborated upon not only in the story of Jacob (as I wrote regarding the Torah reading of Vayishlach), but also in the story of Joseph.
Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher who lived in the 12th century) distinguishes between two kinds of tshuva in his laws of tshuva of his law code – tshuva that is connected to a specific action and tshuva that is not connected to a specific action (self-examination in relation to one’s thoughts and character traits). The story of Jacob’s tshuva, in my view, is in the sense that Maimonides termed tshuva that is connected to a specific action – Jacob wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing. The tshuva of Joseph is not connected to a specific action. Joseph’s tshuva is in the sense of his achieving a profound faith and wisdom in which he sees the hand of God in all that occurs in life. He says to his brothers when he reveals himself to them – “And now it was not you who sent me here but God” (Genesis 45, 8).
The profound faith that Joseph displays is not theological (such as believing in the truth of a theological proposition that God exists or is provident) but psychological in the sense of a positive and optimistic attitude toward life in which he sees the hand of God in all that happens in life – and, such profound faith that Joseph achieves is, in my opinion, tshuva in the sense that Maimonides terms tshuva not connected to a specific action (laws of tshuva 7, 3):
Do no say that there is no tshuva except regarding transgressions that involve action such as sexual licentiousness, robbery and stealing. Rather, just as a person needs to do tshuva regarding these things; so, too, one needs to examine one’s bad character traits that one has and needs to do tshuva regarding anger, hatred, jealousy, frivolity, pursuit of money and honor, preoccupation with food and so on. Such sins are more difficult than those that involve action.
I want to point out two things here. First, tshuva that is not connected to a specific action is in theory and in practice obligatory upon us independent of our actions – and we must examine our thoughts and character traits at all times regardless of our actions. Tshuva that is connected to a specific action is obligatory upon us in theory only when we have committed some wrongdoing; however, in practice, there is no human being free of wrongdoing or mistakes, and thus we are from a practical point of view obligated to examine our actions at all times.
Second, the Hebrew word that is translated here as character traits is ambiguous in medieval Hebrew, and has two meanings that are connected for Maimonides – thoughts and character traits. In the passage here Maimonides is speaking about bad character traits and not thoughts; but, tshuva in the sense that is not connected to a specific action is for Maimonides concerning both thoughts and character traits. Maimonides, as a philosopher, is aware long before modern humanistic (cognitive) psychology that the source of our feelings and character traits is our thoughts (human reason). He writes in his law code regarding prophecy, which for Maimonides is the attaining of intellectual enlightenment (fundamental principles of the Torah 7, 1) – “and prophecy rests only upon one who is wise, great in wisdom, of strong character traits, and whose inclination (drives and passions) do not overcome one regarding any matter in the world; but one always overcomes one’s inclination through the use of one’s reason“. Thus, tshuva that is not connected to a specific action is concerning both thoughts and character traits – and this is the tshuva of Joseph who achieves profound faith and wisdom that enables him also to control his feelings and develop good character traits.
The Bible does not tell us when or how Joseph does tshuva – how and when he attains such profound faith and wisdom. The Bible tells us that Joseph brought an evil report regarding his brothers to Jacob (Genesis 37, 2), and that he related to them in an arrogant way in telling of his dreams to his brothers and father (Genesis 37, 5-11). When his brothers out of their anger and hatred throw him into a pit (Genesis 37, 24) it is reasonable to assume that he had negative thoughts (“why me?”, “why has this happened to me?”, “It’s not fair”).
After being sold into slavery to Egypt, and becoming the servant of Potiphar, Joseph is falsely accused of rape of Potiphar’s wife and he is put in prison. Significantly, Joseph refers to the prison as a pit (Genesis 40, 15) – the very same word pit that is used to describe the pit (Genesis 37, 22) that his brothers had thrown him into just before being sold into slavery. It is also reasonable to assume that while in prison, in a pit for the second time, he had negative thoughts (“why me?”, “why has this happened to me?”, “It’s not fair”). In prison in Egypt he does display an ability to interpret dreams – and, he attributes his ability to God in asking “do not interpretations belong to God?” (Genesis 40, 8). But there is no textual evidence indicating that at this point Joseph has attained profound faith and wisdom in the sense of a positive attitude of seeing the hand of God in all that happens in life.
When Joseph is sold into slavery to Egypt the Bible tells us that God is with Joseph and he prospers (Genesis 39, 2) – and, the Bible tells us that Potiphar sees that God is with Joseph (Genesis 39, 3). When he is unjustly thrown into prison, the Bible again tells us that God is with Joseph (Genesis 39, 21). But, this means only that Joseph was successful such that even others saw that he was blessed by God in his actions. There is no indication, though, in the text of Joseph attaining profound faith and wisdom in the sense of a positive attitude of seeing the hand of God in all that happens in life.
When Joseph is brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he again attributes his ability to interpret dreams to God – “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Genesis 41, 16). However, in Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams there is suddenly a significant change.
In his previous interpretations of dreams in prison, Joseph did not mention God at all. He attributed his ability to interpret to God – but, the interpretations themselves did not mention God (Genesis 40, 12-13 and 18-19). When he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, though, he repeatedly emphasizes the hand of God reflected in what will come to pass. He begins by telling Pharaoh “what God is about to do He has declared unto Pharaoh” (Genesis 41, 25), and he repeats this in between his interpretation of the two dreams of Pharaoh that according to Joseph are one (Genesis 41, 28) before concluding by telling Pharaoh “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Genesis 41, 32).
This change in Joseph is sudden for us as readers of the story – but, this does not mean that the change was sudden for Joseph in his life. Again, the Bible does not tell us when or how Joseph does tshuva – how and when he attains such profound faith and wisdom. However, when he is brought out of prison and interprets the dreams of Pharaoh it seems clear that Joseph is a changed person, and has attained profound faith and wisdom.
Moreover, Joseph does not only interpret the dreams of Pharaoh – he also gives unsolicited advice to Pharaoh (Genesis 41, 33-36). One might think that Joseph is arrogant here standing before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as a servant who had just been brought out of imprisonment to interpret dreams. He was not brought before Pharaoh to give advice. In my view, though, Joseph is not arrogant. He interprets the dreams of Pharaoh as he was asked to do – and, on the basis of his interpretation he gives advice to Pharaoh and in so doing he is, in my view, assertive rather than arrogant.
Indeed, there is textual evidence that his giving advice came out of an attitude not of arrogance but humility. After telling Pharaoh as a part of his advice (Genesis 33) “And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt”, and after the Bible tells us that Joseph’s advice seemed good to Pharaoh (Genesis 41, 37), Pharaoh responds to Joseph’s advice by asking “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” – and, he then appoints Joseph to be in charge of Egypt (Genesis 41, 39-40). There is no response, though, from Joseph – only silence as indicated when Pharaoh says immediately after appointing Joseph to be in charge of Egypt (Genesis 41, 41) – “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt”. In my view, Joseph’s silence after being appointed to be in charge of Egypt reflects shock such that Pharaoh then needs to tell him that he has indeed appointed him over Egypt – “See…”. Such shock and silence is, in my eyes, an expression of humility.
At the beginning of the story of Joseph, the Bible draws a portrait of Joseph as arrogant in telling of his dreams to his brothers and father (Genesis 37, 5-11). I want to suggest that when Joseph is brought out of prison in Egypt to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, the portrait that the Bible draws of Joseph is of his not only being a changed person in having attained a profound wisdom and faith, but of his also being a changed person in terms of his character traits – he is now humble and no longer arrogant.
Most important, as a part of his tshuva, Joseph uses his profound faith and wisdom especially to help his brothers when he reveals himself to them. He tells them “And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves that you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45, 5). Also, after the death of Jacob when his brothers are afraid that Joseph will seek revenge against them he attempts to comfort them from a psychological point of view regarding their fear – “don’t be afraid; for am I in the place of God?”(Genesis 50, 19). He again tells them not to fear and the Bible tells us that he spoke to their heart – “and now don’t be afraid…and he comforted them and spoke to their heart” (Genesis 50, 21). The profound faith that Joseph displays then is not in a theological but psychological sense of a positive and optimistic attitude and outlook toward life – and, he uses his profound wisdom especially to help his brothers from a psychological point of view deal with their feelings relating to what happened in the past in order to improve their relationship in the present.