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righting a wrong


The Torah teaches us that when someone’s reputation is unjustly damaged, we must go the extra mile to restore their good name.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Miketz” (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17) and in it we read about the roller-coaster life of Joseph, who started as the favorite son, but found himself thrown into a pit, sold as a slave, blamed for something he didn’t do, and finally imprisoned in Egypt. And that’s the short version!

Eventually, Pharaoh had dreams that he could not figure out and Joseph, a proven dream interpreter, was rushed to Pharaoh to offer him an interpretation of his dream. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream to his liking, and as a reward, he was made Viceroy of Egypt, which was similar to being the prime minister under a king.

But here’s another detail that many people seem to miss: Pharaoh arranged for Joseph to marry Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, the powerful Egyptian minister who sent Joseph to prison in the first place! That’s a really weird match! What was Pharaoh thinking? Why did Pharaoh arrange for Joseph to marry the daughter of a person who sent him to jail?

Allow me to share a true story that helps illustrate Pharaoh’s intentions.

One day, Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun of Vilna, a great scholar and a money-lender, sat immersed in his Torah studies, when a local tailor by the name of Zalman came to borrow money. The rabbi gave Zalman 300 rubles, which were to be paid back within one year.

When Zalman came exactly one year later to pay back his loan, the rabbi was immersed in study and didn’t realize that it was Zalman paying back his loan. Zalman didn’t want to disturb the rabbi so he placed an envelope with the money on the table and left.

The rabbi didn’t notice and didn’t mark the loan as “paid.”

Some time later, when the rabbi was reviewing outstanding loans, he saw Zalman’s name was marked “unpaid.” The rabbi summoned Zalman to inquire why he had not repaid the loan, and Zalman replied that he already repaid it as promised!

Word got out about Zalman’s “theft” against the greatest rabbi of the time, and his name was ruined. People were filled with disdain toward the unfortunate tailor. They stopped patronizing his shop and wouldn’t even look his way on the street. Eventually he had to close his business and move out of town. He and his family were left destitute and broken by the episode.

About a year later, the rabbi found Zalman’s envelope! And indeed, the rabbi then recalled what had happened and his negligence in marking the loan as unpaid. The rabbi was overcome with emotion and regret. After asking around, the rabbi found out where Zalman was living and made his way to the small village.

“Zalman, please forgive me! I have just found the money you repaid! You were right all the time, and I was wrong!”

“So, I forgive you, but what does that help me? I have lost everything, my livelihood, my home, my reputation. I am a broken man,” Zalman responded.

“I will do everything humanly possible to help you regain your position. I will announce in the synagogue that I have wronged you,” said the rabbi.

“That won’t help. Everyone will just think that you are just trying to cover up for me,” Zalman said.

The rabbi realized that Zalman was right. So, what could he do that would really make amends for all the suffering Zalman had endured? He thought of a plan.

“Zalman, I have a daughter of marriageable age. You, I believe, have a son. If I betroth my daughter to your son, no one will be able to doubt that you are an honest and upright man, for I certainly wouldn’t align our families forever if it were not so.” Zalman agreed.

The children were married. Zalman’s reputation was restored. The painful saga had ended.

Back to this week’s Torah portion? So why did Pharaoh match Joseph up with Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar?

Pharaoh knew about Joseph’s past.

He knew that he had a “criminal record” and had been a slave. Pharaoh was concerned that the Egyptian population would be critical of having such a viceroy.

Therefore, in order to increase Joseph’s profile and bolster his reputation, Pharoah arranged for Joseph to marry into the family that had originally sent him to jail. Pharaoh thus matched Joseph with Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, to prevent criticism based on Joseph’s “past.”

May our reputations never become falsely tarnished like those of Joseph and Zalman!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.




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