Vayechi: Pleading for Forgiveness

December 9, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Posted in Vayechi | 3 Comments
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The story of Joseph and his brothers ends in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis/Bereishit: Vayechi (And he lived). The patriarch Jacob and his family of more than 70 have emigrated from Canaan to Egypt, to live under the protection of his son Joseph, who has become Pharaoh’s viceroy. Jacob lives 17 more years in Egypt before he dies.

And Joseph’s brothers saw, because their father was dead, and they said: Lu Joseph hates us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we rendered to him! (Genesis/Bereishit 50:15)

lu (לוּ) = if only, if.

What do Joseph’s older brothers see? As long as their father was alive, they knew Joseph would not upset the old man by punishing them for their long-ago crime of selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt. But once Jacob is dead, they see that for all they know, Joseph still hates them.

“What if Joseph hates us?” the brothers ask in many English translations. This makes sense, since Joseph’s ten older brothers really do not know whether Joseph still bears a grudge against them.

But everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, lu means simply “if” (4 to 6 times) or, more often, the wish “if only” (17 to 19 times). Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, an eighteenth-century Moroccan rabbi, proposed that on one level, the brothers do wish for Joseph’s hatred. If only Joseph would pay them back for selling him into slavery, he wrote, their suffering would make up for Joseph’s suffering.

In her book The Murmuring Deep, modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg took it a step further when she wrote: “…the brothers wish for Joseph’s healing hatred, even as they fear it. A painful confrontation might have opened the wounds of the past, making real cure possible… But instead, Joseph tells a story of meaning that leaves the real wrongs of the past unredressed and unresolved.”

Joseph first told this “story of meaning” when he revealed his identity to his brothers in last week’s Torah portion. He told them not to feel guilty for selling him, but he did not actually pardon them. Instead he said that their crime was part of God’s plan to bring them to Egypt, where he, the viceroy, could save them from the famine.

For 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 are still not brave enough to apologize to him directly.

So they handed on an order to Joseph saying: Your father gave an order before his death, saying: Thus you shall say to Joseph: Please pardon, please, the crime of your brothers and their wrongdoing, for evil rendered to you; and now please pardon the crime of the servants of your father’s god. And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:16-17)

This deathbed request is patently a fabrication. For one thing, if Jacob had wanted his favorite son Joseph to do something, he would have said so while he was alive. For another thing, the dithering repetitions and the three insertions of “please” sound like a plea of desperation, not the parting command of a father.

And his brothers also went and fell to their faces, and said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:18)

This is the point when Joseph has an opportunity to clear the way for an honest and even affectionate relationship with his older brothers at last. I can imagine a different sort of Joseph saying: “Get up, you’re my brothers! I wonder if that message you sent was your way of admitting your guilt over the past, and asking for my forgiveness. Is that true? Ah, then I forgive you. And not just because it all worked out well in the long run, but because I’ve seen that every one of you has changed. And I admit that I’ve been guilty of some cruelty toward you, as well—both when I was a boy and I bragged and told tales on you, and when you came to Egypt to buy grain and I tormented you with all that testing. Can you forgive me, too?”

Alas, this response only exists in my imagination. In the Torah, Joseph only repeats that his brothers are exempt from blame because God arranged everything.

As you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. And now, do not be afraid. I myself will sustain you and your small children. Vayenacheim them, and he spoke al their heart. (Genesis 50:20-21)

vayenacheim (וַיְנַחֵם) = and he caused a change of heart; and he comforted; and he reassured.

al (עַל)= on, upon, above, over.

The only way Joseph can reassure his brothers is to explicitly forgive them for their long-ago crime. Does he do it, causing them to have a change of heart? Or does he speak words that go over their hearts, missing the mark? The Torah is silent, skipping to the end of Joseph’s life, when he dies at age 110 and gives burial instructions to his brothers.

Forgiveness means letting go of all anger and resentment toward someone who has committed an offence against you. It can be entirely internal. But if you want people to know you have forgiven them, you must state what they did that upset you, give them an opportunity to explain or apologize, and then state that you forgive them.

I think that Joseph does forgive his older brothers, internally. At first, when he “tests” them by commanding them to return with Benjamin, it may be primarily a ploy to get his innocent little brother to Egypt. But Joseph continues the test after Benjamin has arrived, to see whether his older brothers will abandon Benjamin to slavery the way they abandoned him.  Clearly he wants to find a reason to forgive and reconcile with his older brothers.  When they pass the test, it occurs to Joseph that he can exonerate his brothers by making God responsible. At that point he lets go of his anger and resentment, and he kisses and weeps over all his brothers.

Joseph’s fault lies in being so absorbed in his own feelings, he fails to let his brothers know he has forgiven them. So they continue to live with their guilt, and their fear that Joseph will someday get revenge.

I myself have forgiven people internally without letting them know. Sometimes I decided it was better not to bring up old offences, since the people who hurt me had no idea they did so, and remained too involved in their own internal troubles to handle any accusation.

Sometimes I could have told someone I was hurt, and given the person a chance to explain or apologize; but I was afraid, and now it is too late.

I am grateful for the times when I have been able to speak honestly to someone who proved receptive, and we were able to talk it through to mutual apology and forgiveness.

May we all receive the grace to let go of anger and resentment at those who have hurt us, at least internally. And may we find the intuition to know when to speak directly, so that forgiveness can happen openly—without blaming God!



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  1. Another reason I haven’t had this kind of conversation with those who have hurt me the most? Because I know from their past behavior that the “dialogue” will turn into an indictment of everything that is “wrong” about ME. The wounds I have internalized – self-doubt, self-hatred, distrust, lack of tenderness and lack of compassion – would only grow deeper if I were to give the people who have hurt me a new opportunity to vocalize what their projections have lodged into my sub-conscience….. Thanks for your wonderful work! It is always so moving! With Love, Jeneba

  2. Ah, those patriarchs and matriarchs–so darned human.

    • Dear Jeneba,
      Yes, I know people like that, too. The ones I know are like Joseph in that they are so absorbed in their own feelings that it does not even occur to them to consider the feelings or needs of a close family member, But unlike Joseph, they do not see themselves as successful parental figures who will take care of their “children”; instead they secretly hate themselves and project that hate on their victims. I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re talking about …, but I agree that it is useless, or worse than useless, to start a dialogue of apology and forgiveness with people who are incapable of hearing you.
      May you receive plenty of strength as you engage in the holy work of separating yourself from those bad projections!

      Dear Donna,
      Yes, the people in the book of Genesis are very human indeed. That’s why I am bothered by the traditional orthodox approach in so much commentary, the approach that decides who is a hero and who is villain, and then reinterprets the Torah to make the heroes perfectly good and the villains perfectly evil. I think that one of the glories of Genesis is that all the people in it are like us, with good traits and dangerous weaknesses–and we get to read how these human psychological elements play out in a stark and simple setting without our modern complications.

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