In this dramatic reading, Joseph and his brothers are finally united. It is the first biblical record of forgiveness between family members and has much to say to us, not only about forgiveness but also about reconciliation. They are not the same thing.
Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. From one perspective, forgiveness is a form of voluntary ‘suffering’. Look at it this way.
If a friend hurts your reputation with gossip or unkind words, you have two choices: ‘pay’ them back with a cold shoulder, with unkind words about them to others, or refusing to reconcile with them. Or you forgive, and you absorb the suffering yourself. Someone always pays every debt.
Forgiveness is a promise first, to refrain from retribution or revenge and secondly, to deny yourself the luxury of brooding or obsessing over the wrong that was done. Forgiveness does not excuse the misbehavior of the other person, but it does recognize that all humanity is flawed and therefore you choose to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We all need forgiveness at various times throughout our lives so give it freely and you will reap it back in abundance.
In revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph freely expressed his forgiveness. In fact, he went so far as to free them from the burden of guilt by saying, “it was not you, but God, who sent me here…”
But, you may ask, if he was so ready to forgive them, why did he treat them harshly when they first went down to Egypt? This is where we learn about reconciliation. You can forgive someone for an offense without reconciling with them. In fact, reconciliation often takes some time depending on the nature of the offense. Because you forgive someone who betrayed you, for example, doesn’t mean you have to trust them immediately. That’s what we see displayed in Joseph’s actions.
Had his brothers truly changed? Or were they still quarrelsome and cantankerous? Joseph put them through a series of tests designed to reveal their character, the ultimate one being the encounter with his brother, Judah, in Genesis 44:18-34. Judah – the one who originally suggested selling Joseph – now humbly pleads for mercy regarding Benjamin and even offers himself to take Benjamin’s place. That was the moment when Joseph knew that his brother’s repentance was real. And so the very next verse, Gen. 45:1, says “Joseph could stand it no longer…”and putting everyone out of the room he cries out, “I am Joseph!” Though he had forgiven them long ago, at this moment they are reconciled. Joseph could trust them again. Why? Because when faced with the opportunity to abandon (betray) Benjamin as they had betrayed him, they refused to do so and instead begged for mercy.
Joseph never lost his hope for a restored and healed relationship with his brothers and reunion with his father. But Joseph was wise enough to know that while forgiveness can be given – even at a distance from the offender – reconciliation requires a rebuilding of trust. The tests he put his brothers through paved the way for full reconciliation.
We have all been hurt and we have all hurt others. If we refuse to forgive, we damage our own souls. (Even the Mayo Clinic has published articles on the negative effects to one’s physical and mental health of harboring resentment and bitterness.) The Torah – indeed – all of Scripture exhorts to forgive one another. But that’s the first step. The next is reconciliation. Depending on the offense, it can take a little time or a lot of time. There will always be a need for patience on the road to reconciliation. What matters is that like Joseph we never give up hope.
In Tune with Torah this week = Are you holding on to any resentment or bitterness? Do you harbor a coldness, an irritability toward someone? Are you refusing to ‘let go’ of past hurts? Do you justify your negative attitude and anger towards someone? If any of these questions elicit a ‘yes’, don’t you think it’s time to move on? To mend broken relationships? To cleanse your own soul of the damaging effects of nursing old wounds? May God help us all to move closer to unity and peace within our families and communities.