Whenever a human being, through the commission of a crime, has become exiled from good, he needs to be reintegrated with it through suffering. The suffering should be inflicted with the aim of bringing the soul to recognize freely some day that its infliction was just. -Simone Weil
The Torah believes in punishment, either divine or court-inflicted. However, it generally comes from either a sense of justice and creating balance, or in somehow rehabilitating the evil-doer. It is interesting to note that the concept of a jail is almost completely absent from the Jewish legal code. There was either financial compensation, corporal punishment or the death penalty.
The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1876) asks how did God allow Joseph to be punished and placed in prison after he withstood the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, when according to the sages, it was a divine test greater than all the tests the Patriarchs endured. He answers that it was punishment for an earlier sin.
According to the Midrash, the ancient oral tradition that accompanied the written Torah, Joseph sinned when as a youth of seventeen he slandered his brothers to their father Jacob. But God postponed that punishment to a better time. That time is exactly after Joseph had performed an act of moral courage that transforms him and places him at a higher spiritual level. Now that Joseph is more righteous, two things happen. He somehow has greater strength and capacity to bear the punishment, but now, God is also more exacting with him and so the punishment must be meted out. In a way, Joseph’s newly acquired righteousness now forces him to confront and seek atonement for his earlier sins.
The Sfat Emet warns based on this episode, that if a person performs some great act or avoids serious sin, he shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate himself; as such pride may invite a closer examination of his past and bring down punishment for previous sins.
May we realize our mistakes and repent for them and so reach those higher ethical levels without paying a painful price for previous indiscretions.
To Nobel Laureate Professor Dan Shechtman of Israel on his inspirational visit to Uruguay.