Reciprocal Kindness – Mikketz 5781

D'var Torah | Genesis

A very cunning Joseph devises a plan that will result in bringing his younger brother and his aging father to Egypt. The first part of his plan is to plant a valuable object in the saddlebags of one of the brothers and then charge them with being thieves. Though the brothers will deny it, the accusation of theft allows Joseph to hold one brother as hostage until the others can validate their story by returning to Egypt with Jacob and Benjamin. The readers are very much aware of the subterfuge but not Joseph’s servant who he charges to arrest the suspected thieves. For his servants Joseph gives as justification the ingratitude of the sons of Jacob. They were given provisions and take advantage of Joseph’s kindness by stealing from him. As the text states: “Why did you repay good with evil?” (Genesis 44:4).


The underlying ethical idea is that of reciprocal kindness, often considered evidence of natural law. Every human society includes the principle of returning a favor. If someone performs an act of kindness for another, the recipient of that kindness has a moral obligation to repay it. Failure to do so is a moral failure subject to reprobation. In the biblical narrative, stealing from a benefactor is repudiation of the kindness shown and similarly subject to reprobation. On these grounds, Joseph’s servants felt entirely justified in pursuing the brothers and returning them to Egypt to answer for their misdeed.


Conceptually, reciprocal kindness also finds its way into Jewish law. The author the fourteenth century explication of the 613 laws in the Torah called Sefer Ha-hinukh (Law 33) explains that the reason for the commandment to respect father and mother is based on the fact that fathers and mothers bring children into this world and expend considerable time and resources in nurturing their offspring until they reach the stage of independence. Children, of course, are in no position to compensate their parents materially. Instead, the Torah imposes upon children the obligation to respect their parents in other ways in appreciation of parental support. In other words, respect for parents is an act of reciprocal kindness. The failure to respect parents is, therefore, an act of ingratitude of the highest order.


Reciprocal kindness complements altruism. Altruism requires a person to act in such a way that helps another with no expectation of reward. Reciprocal kindness governs the actions of the recipient of the altruistic deed. To be sure, the world would be vastly better were all people altruistic. That, however, is hardly likely. But returning favors is not beyond us at all. Hence, there is no more reliable and accurate measure of goodness than reciprocal kindness.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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