Vayiggash & Vayehi: Forgiven?

April 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Vayechi, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on December 7, 2010.)

And Joseph said to his brothers: I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive?  But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified (nivhalu) before his face.  And Joseph said to his brothers: Please step close to me.  And they stepped close.  And he said: I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.  And now, don’t feel bad, and don’t consider it disturbing that you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life.  (Genesis/Bereishit 45:3-5)

Therefore you did not send me here, but the God!  (Genesis/Berishit 45:8)

nivhalu = they were terrified, they were out of their senses, they panicked, they were shocked

Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped close).  Joseph’s ten older brothers had sold him into slavery when he was 17.  Twenty years later, they travel to  Egypt to buy grain.  By this time, Joseph is Pharaoh’s head administrator and economic advisor.  He is twenty years older, he has an Egyptian name, and he wears Egyptian clothes.  He pretends to be the stranger he appears, speaking to his brothers through an interpreter, and he forces them to go through a series of punishing tests—perhaps to see if they have changed, perhaps to get revenge on them.  The final “test” is when Joseph plants his silver goblet in the sack of Benjamin (the youngest brother and the only one who had nothing to do with Joseph’s sale), then insists that Benjamin stole it and must remain in Egypt as a slave.

As this week’s portion begins, one of the brothers, Judah, steps up to Joseph and begs to be enslaved in Benjamin’s place.  Judah explains that if Benjamin does not return to Canaan, their father Jacob will die of grief.

This plea moves Joseph so much that he can no longer continue either his masquerade or his testing.  He sends away the Egyptians, and says in Hebrew, “I am Joseph.”  When his brothers are too terrified to answer, he tells them not to worry about their old crime, because God made them do it for a good reason.

This is sufficiently reassuring, combined with Joseph’s tears, that the brothers become able to speak to him (though only Benjamin, the one brother without a crime on his conscience, responds with tears of his own).  The brothers even take Joseph’s message back to their father, Jacob, and move their whole extended family down to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection.

Yet the reconciliation of the brothers is incomplete.  In the final Torah portion of Genesis, Vayehi (“And it happened”), the patriarch Jacob dies, 17 years after the whole clan moved to Egypt.  After their father’s death, the ten older brothers are afraid Joseph will take revenge on them after all.  They come and beg him for forgiveness.  Apparently Joseph’s earlier speech, translated above, was not sufficient for them to believe they were forgiven.

My opinion is that when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he not only fails to tell them he forgives them, he even prevents them from apologizing.

Joseph has overheard them speaking to each other in Hebrew, saying that their bad fortune with this Egyptian administrator must be God’s punishment for their cruelty to their little brother Joseph.  He knows they feel guilty.  Yet when he tells them he is the one they “sold into Egypt”, he does not pause to give them a chance to apologize.  Instead he rushes on to say that God made them sell him, so that he would wind up in his current position as master of Egypt’s economy and preserver of their lives.  In other words, they are not really responsible for their own crime; it was all determined by God.

The brothers don’t buy it.  They still blame themselves for their cruelty to Joseph.  Joseph’s speech allays their fear of retribution for a while, but does not resolve their guilt.

When the ten brothers beg Joseph for forgiveness at the end of the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Joseph at least grants them the dignity of being responsible for their own bad intentions, and says God just used their wicked deed to generate good.  Joseph also assures his brothers he will continue to take care of them.  But he still does not explicitly forgive them.

It’s a tall order, but I try to do better than Joseph.  When people admit they might have harmed me, I remember Joseph, and I’m careful to accept their apologies, implied or explicit.  Instead of saying merely, “It’s okay,” I say:  “Thank you for apologizing.  It’s okay, I forgive you.”

I don’t want anyone to suffer any lingering guilt or uncertainty on my account.

(On the other hand, if I believe someone has done me wrong, and that person never admits it nor apologizes, is true forgiveness possible?  That will have to be a subject for another blog!)

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