Artwork by Davora Lillian
The anger that had counseled them to lift
Their hands against a brother, long ago,
Must have been chastened by their father’s woe,
Which they could not assuage. A further shift
Began when Yosef’s harshness made them know
The terror they’d inflicted, the black shade
Of prison walls across their future laid.
Then dimly in their minds began to glow
The thought of Heaven’s justice, which, though stayed,
Cannot be cheated. When Yehuda cast
Himself away for Binyamin, the past’s
Weight was lightened — yet not quite defrayed
The charge of anger on their souls amassed,
Till the Ten Martyrs scoured it off at last.
[Note: Chapter 11 deals with the “wicked” — those who are mastered by their animal souls. The Alter Rebbe alludes to Rabbi Ishmael’s statement that the most serious sins are only wiped out by suffering. Rabbi Ishmael (or perhaps a namesake) was one of the Ten Martyrs who accepted their execution by the Romans as retribution for the brothers’ transgression in selling Yosef. The present interpretation takes Yosef’s parting admonition to the brothers – “Do not quarrel on the way” — as an indication that despite their repentance, atonement at that point was not complete. I should acknowledge the Chassidic interpretation which holds that the brothers acted from righteous though mistaken motives; I could not use this interpretation because of the subject matter of Chapter 11. (Or perhaps the verb “counseled” in line 1 is meant to suggest that they thought their motives were righteous!)]