When do we find the first example of one person forgiving another, in the Torah? Perhaps in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat “Vayechi”. One of the first cases of human forgiveness is when Joseph forgives his brothers. Since “first time” stories often form an archetype, it’s worth dwelling on them.
After Jacob’s death and his burial, the brothers feared that the moment of truth had arrived. So far, they assumed, Joseph handled them with “kind gloves” in order not to grieve their father. But now, when their father died, Joseph’s natural desire for revenge will rage unfettered, and he will surely punish them as they deserve.
A generation earlier, when Jacob deceived his father Isaac and stole the blessing of his brother Esav, we hear “So Esav hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him”. Then, Esav said in his heart, “The days of my father’s mourning are soon here, and I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27, 41). The mourning days for their father Jacob are here, and perhaps their lives are in danger? “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him” (Genesis 50, 15). This is what they said among themselves, remembering Esav’s feelings.
We can only imagine the long years the brothers lived in fear of this moment. In their view, their safety was guaranteed as long as Jacob lived, but who knew how long he would live? During these years, they may have looked for clues in Joseph’s behavior and words in order to ascertain his true attitude towards them; they interpreted every mood as an ominous sign; they discussed plans of action for the moment of Jacob’s death; they wondered if it was worth running away ahead of time and were tormented by the uncertainty.
With Jacob’s death, the level of their distress must have increased, and this period was prolonged during the long journey to bury Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Upon returning to Egypt, the brothers could no longer tolerate the uncertainty. The tension erupted and they mobilized different methods to appease Joseph – inventing Jacob’s will according to which Joseph must forgive his brothers, reminding him of his father’s God, and calling themselves slaves. When Joseph responded by crying, their anxiety was exacerbated, and they fell before him and offered themselves to him as slaves, returning to that moment years ago, when Joseph’s cup was found in Benjamin’s basket and Yehuda offered, “here we are, my lord’s slaves” (Genesis 44, 16).
The brothers have a classic concept of justice – they committed a grave sin against Joseph, and therefore must be severely punished. During all the years of their stay in Egypt, they waited for Joseph to balance the account, punish them for their crime and make them suffer for the suffering they caused him. But Joseph took an approach similar to what we would call today: “restorative justice”.
In Joseph’s view, he had already taken his brothers on a journey that was a partial punishment, partial re-education and a partial test. Yehuda’s willingness to enslave himself in exchange for Benjamin’s release was proof of the change of heart experienced by at least one of the brothers. Joseph rose above the injury he suffered, forgave his brothers and turned to a new page. While he recognizes the evil intention of the brothers towards him, some years ago – “You thought evil of me”, (Genesis 50, 20), he also realizes the good fortune that ultimately descended upon the whole family as a result of the brothers actions.
We do not hear the brothers’ reaction to Joseph’s dramatic forgiveness scene. Were they convinced, or did they continue to suspect him until the day they died? How difficult it is for us to believe that those whom we injure can simply let go, forgive, give up the hatred and move on. After all, Jacob also approached his renewed meeting with Esav with great apprehension, after many years of anxiety – and then was welcomed with hugs and kisses. How much suffering could be spared if we waived revenge and forgave. And how much fear could have been avoided if we had allowed ourselves to believe that those we hurt could overcome themselves, let go and proceed to healing.
Today’s Israeli discourse is often inclined to punishment, revenge, suspicion and fear. Perhaps redemption will come when we can reorient ourselves, replacing punishment with education, revenge with forgiveness, suspicion with trust, fear with sympathy – on the interpersonal level and in our relations with our Palestinian neighbors?
Rabbi Dr. Sigalit Ur, Co-leader of the Israeli Rabbis Network, research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, instructor and lecturer throughout the Galilee. Lives in Moshav Shorashim, married to Shmuel and mother of three daughters.
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