Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, we read: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did to him!’ So they sent this message to Joseph: ‘Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the G-d of your father.’ And Joseph was in tears when they spoke to him.
After being with Joseph for 17 years in Egypt and after seeing all the good that he did for them, as well as his declaration earlier that he understood that it was not them who sent him to Egypt, but G-d in order that many lives be preserved, why at this late date do we find his brothers still harboring the fear that he would avenge their treatment of him so many years earlier?
One might suggest that the death of their father re-awakened their fears for they may have thought that his kindness towards them was only because of his father’s presence but not that he was dead, he would feel free to retaliate for their betrayal.
I think it goes deeper than that.
When he revealed himself to them 17 years earlier, he had assured them, as we said above, that he recognized the hand of Divine Providence in sending him to Egypt and therefore, he held no bitter feelings toward them. He embraced them at that time, he showered them with gifts, he made provision for them to live peacefully and happily in Goshen, they and their families and their flocks.
Why now, after so many years, do they question his attitude?
Could it be because they have not yet forgiven themselves?
There is a principle in psychology called the ‘mirror syndrome’ which explains that human beings often attribute to others the weaknesses within themselves. When coupled with the inability to forgive oneself for previous errors or wrongdoings, it leads to behavior exactly like this that we are discussing.
The brothers still felt very guilty for having betrayed him and his forgiveness and kindness toward them reinforced their guilt precisely because they had not yet forgiven themselves. Therefore they assumed — because of their own guilt — that Joseph would still be looking for an opportunity to get even. Apparently there was still within them a tendency towards taking one’s own revenge for that is what they attributed to their brother. Without understanding the true nature of forgiveness, this is how human beings think.
When Joseph received their message, he wept for it was clear to him that they had not truly believed him when he forgave them and surely, they had yet to forgive themselves and let go of the past. It is noteworthy that he did not get angry, rather he was very sad. He responded: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for G-d? Besides, although you intended to do me harm, G-d intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the salvation of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
As painful as it may be for any of us when we are hurt or betrayed by someone we love, it is even MORE painful if they do not or cannot accept our forgiveness towards them. At that point, we have a choice – anger or kindness. It is incumbent upon us to choose the path of Joseph — to show kindness and reassurance which is the greatest means of helping the one who offended us to forgive themselves.
In Tune with Torah this week = ask yourself whether or not you are harboring any guilt over errors or offenses that have been forgiven in the past by G-d and/or by others. If you are, resolve this Shabbat to forgive yourself — NOW — and let it go. And if someone you know has difficulty in accepting your forgiveness towards them, do not be angry but with kindness, understand their struggle and do what you can to help them forgive themselves.