No Ifs, Ands or Buts

When Yosef accuses his brothers of being spies, they insist that this is totally untrue. They are just a family from Canaan where there’s a famine and they’ve come to Egypt to purchase food. Unaware that they are speaking to their brother, they tell him that they have an elderly father and a young brother back home.

Yosef then insists that they return to Canaan and bring back their younger brother so that he’ll be able to check out their story and determine they are not spies. He tells the brothers that he is going to hold one of them in prison while the others go back to fetch their younger brother Benjamin.

At this point the brothers make an admission to each other: We are indeed guilty concerning our brother. (Genesis 42:21)

The Hebrew word for indeed is ‘aval’ and has several different meanings. Aval can mean indeed, which confirms a thought. However, aval can also mean ‘but’, which negates a previous thought. In addition, aval can mean a mourner.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein explores the fascinating relationship between these words. The first stage a mourner goes through is often denial. The grieving process is supposed to lead from here to a state of acceptance. Mourning, therefore, begins with “but” – the difficulty in accepting the death of a loved one. The mourning process though proceeds to “indeed” – acceptance of the loss.

The thrust of the Hebrew word ‘aval’ to express indeed implies not just confirmation, but confirmation despite the possibility of any rationalization, excuse, or ‘but’ to the contrary.

The brother’s confession, therefore, was an admission of guilt that totally dismissed any arguments they may have considered to justify their past interactions with Yosef. The use of the word ‘aval’ emphasizes that they were not just sorry for the past, but that they regarded their behavior as inexcusable.

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