Vayiggash: Forgiveness Without Respect

December 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | 1 Comment
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The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches a turning point in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped forward). When Joseph is 17, his ten older brothers catch him far from home, throw him into a pit, and sell him as a slave. He pleads with them, but he is powerless to stop them.

Now, at age 39, Joseph is a viceroy of Egypt, and his brothers must come to him to buy grain during a regional famine. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. Now Joseph has all the power; he can forgive his older brothers, or he can have them executed. He decides to postpone his decision until he has tested them. (See my last blog post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy)

First Joseph commands them to bring back the youngest of their father Jacob’s twelve sons, Benjamin. They do so only after a second year of famine, knowing that otherwise the viceroy will not sell them more grain.

Joseph hides his tears at the sight of his grown-up baby brother. But he still proceeds with the test, planting a silver divination goblet in the innocent Benjamin’s pack. When all eleven brothers start back toward Canaan, Joseph sends his steward after them to accuse them of theft.

The steward says that the one who has the goblet will become the viceroy’s slave, but the rest will be free to go. This is Joseph’s test. Will the ten older brothers abandon Benjamin to slavery in Egypt, just as they did to Joseph? Or have they changed?

The brothers respond by tearing their clothes in grief, then returning to the viceroy’s house together.

This week’s Torah portion opens with Judah stepping forward and telling the story of the test from his own point of view. He emphasizes that their father, Jacob, would die of grief if Benjamin did not return. He concludes:

And now, please let your servant stay, instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord; and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not there with us? Otherwise I would see the evil that would befall my father! (Genesis 44:33-34)

Judah passes Joseph’s test with flying colors, proving that he would rather become a slave himself than mistreat his brother or his father. As modern commentator Karen Armstrong wrote, “Judah had been able to accept the painful truth that had torn siblings apart since the time of Cain: that love is unfair … His own suffering had enabled him to enter the inner world of the father who had wronged him.” (Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning, pp. 109-110)

Joseph feels that all ten older brothers have passed the test, and he is overcome with emotion.

Then Joseph was not able to contain himself in front of all those standing attendance on him, so he called out: Remove all the men around me! So not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. Then he let his voice rise in weeping, and the Egyptians heard, and the household of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers: I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? But his brothers were not able to answer him, because nivhalu before him. (Genesis 45:1-3)

nivhalu = they were terrified; they were dumbfounded and alarmed. (This verb is sometimes translated “they were dismayed” or “they were disconcerted”, but the Hebrew Bible usually uses the word for more extreme emotions. I think an inability to speak also indicates an extreme emotional reaction!)

Why are the brothers terrified? I believe the shock of discovering that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph brings home the truth. Until this moment, they felt justified in getting rid of Joseph, who at age 17 was a conceited tattletale and seemed to be turning their father against them. They only felt guilty later for their lack of compassion while they were doing it.

Now they realize they did not succeed in getting rid of Joseph. Nor did they succeed in winning the love of their father; Jacob merely transferred his favoritism to Benjamin and continued to grieve over Joseph’s apparent death. But they did do wrong, to both their brother and their father. They are criminals. And before them stands Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, who can order their execution.

While they are still speechless, Joseph talks.

I am Joseph, your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But now, don’t worry and don’t get angry at yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you, to preserve life. Because this is the second year of famine in the midst of the land, and for five more years there will be no plowing or harvesting…So now, you did not send me here, but God, who has appointed me as av to Pharaoh and master of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8)

av = father (often translated as “advisor” in this verse).

Some commentators say that Joseph is now humble. They claim that Joseph is modestly giving credit to God instead of himself. But I think he is still a braggart, pointing out that he has risen from being their father Jacob’s favorite to Pharaoh’s favorite to God’s favorite.

Furthermore, when he excuses his brothers’ crime by saying that God arranged it, Joseph shows that he does not respect them as adult human beings. If they are not responsible for their own actions, they are incapable of free choice; they are less than human. Personally, I would rather admit a crime and apologize for it, than be silenced because my victim insists I had no freedom of choice.

Joseph’s flood of words continues as he urges his brothers to hurry home and bring their father and their own families and flocks down to Egypt, so he can take care of them all by settling them in the region of Goshen.

And I will sustain you there, because there are still five years of famine left, lest you become impoverished, you and your household and all that is yours. (Genesis 45:11)

Joseph clearly enjoys being a “father” to his own family, as well as to the Pharaoh of Egypt. He is in charge, and his brothers would starve without him.

Once he has reduced his brothers to an infantile status, Joseph embraces Benjamin and weeps, and then kisses each of his other brothers and weeps. And after that, his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)

The Torah does not record what they said. But we know that there is no true reconciliation, because in next week’s Torah portion, the brothers are still worried that Joseph hates them and will turn on them.

I can understand why Joseph’s brothers do not feel safe. According to Joseph’s new philosophy, anyone might become a puppet in God’s hands, deprived of free will. Even if they do not remember the free choice God gave to Adam (a name that also means “humankind”) in the story of the Garden of Eden, the brothers might instinctively shrink from Joseph’s philosophy—as I do.

But if humans do have a measure of free will, then Joseph, too, is responsible for his own choices. He is offering to sustain them now, but for all they know, he is reserving the option of punishing them later. They know he does not respect them. He might forgive them anyway, but so far, he has not pardoned them; he has not said he forgives them. I suspect Joseph’s brothers still feel a shadow of their initial terror when the viceroy said: I am Joseph.

A world in which we are responsible for our own decisions is a world in which forgiveness matters.

Does Joseph ever forgive his brothers? Do they ever know that he has forgiven them? I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayechi: Asking for Forgiveness.


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  1. […] 17 years the brothers left this uncomfortable explanation unchallenged. (See my last post, Vayiggash: Forgiveness Without Respect.) Now that their father is dead, their fear that Joseph has not forgiven them revives. But they […]

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