Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayigash December 30, 2011

There are rare and unique moments in world history that men or nations remember and one such moment occurs in this week’s Torah portion. We read the deeply moving account of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who are stunned to the core.

As they stand there speechless, he says to them: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)

This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another. This is a very big deal!!!

Joseph forgives. That is a first in history. There is even a hint in the Torah of the newness of this event. Many years later, after their father Jacob has died, the brothers come to Joseph fearing that he will now take revenge. They concoct a story:

They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. [Gen. 50: 16-18]

The brothers understand the word “forgive” – this is the first time it appears explicitly in the Torah – but they are still unsure about it. Did Joseph really mean it the first time? Can someone really forgive those who sold him into slavery? Joseph weeps that his brothers haven’t really understood that he meant it when he said it. But he did, then and now.

There is nothing accidental about Joseph’s behavior. In fact from the moment the brothers appear before him in Egypt for the first time to the moment when he announces his identity and forgives them, there is an immensely detailed account of the process of earning forgiveness.

First he accuses them of a crime they have not committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. In other words, he is forcing them to re-enact that earlier occasion when they came back to their father with one of the brothers, Joseph, missing. Look at what happens next:

They said to one another, “Surely we deserve to be punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. [Gen. 42: 21-23]

Here is the first stage of repentance. They admit they have done wrong.

Next, after the second meeting, Joseph has his special silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. It is found and the brothers are brought back. They are told that Benjamin must stay as a slave.

“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” [Gen. 44: 16]

Here is the second stage of repentance. They confess. They do more: they admit collective responsibility. This is important. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery it was Judah who proposed the crime (37: 26-27) but they were all (except Reuben) complicit in it.

Finally, at the climax of the story Judah himself says “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers!” (42: 33). Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to become a slave so that his brother Benjamin can go free. This is what the sages and Maimonides define as complete repentance, namely when circumstances repeat themselves and you have an opportunity to commit the same crime again, but you refrain from doing so because you have changed.

Now Joseph can forgive, because his brothers, led by Judah, have gone through all three stages of repentance: [1] admission of guilt, [2] confession and [3] behavioral change.

Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognize that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again.

Forgiveness is not just one idea among many. It transformed the human situation. For the first time it established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show that I can change. And when I forgive I show that my action is not mere reaction, the way revenge would be. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of the past, the undoing of what was done.

Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.

In Tune with Torah this week = checking our own relationships to be sure that we have fully forgiven others and that we ourselves have sought forgiveness from whomever it is needed.

Shabbat Shalom

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