This week's parashah has much to teach us about forgiveness. Near the end of our parashah, we come upon the words of Judah, spoken to his brother Joseph. It is a late moment in the story, after the brothers have sold Joseph into slavery, after Joseph has risen to power in Egypt, after there's been famine in Canaan, and after Joseph's brothers have been sent, twice, by their father to Egypt to bring back food. At this moment, Joseph has said that he will enslave Benjamin, his full brother, and that all the other brothers are free to go. In this moment, Judah does not yet know Joseph's true identity. The goblet has been found in Benjamin's bag and Judah will do everything in his power to protect Benjamin. "Judah replied: 'What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants' " (Gen. 44:16).
Judah recognizes that he and his brothers are being repaid midah k'neged midah (measure for measure) for their sin against Joseph when they sold him into slavery. Instead of seeing the ordeal of the goblet as random and whimsical, Judah sees the justice in the scenario. Regardless of how the goblet wound up in Benjamin's bag, Judah sees God's hand in the event. In this moment, he takes responsibility for all his actions by recognizing that his actions had enduring significance, shaping the seemingly unconnected events that unfolded down the road. That's one theology present in the biblical story.
But Joseph presents an alternate theology. Joseph has carefully constructed this scene in order to determine whether his brothers have done true teshuvah; whether, when faced with the same situation, they would act in the same way again. The brothers appear to pass the test, and (in next week's parashah), Joseph discloses his identity and reconciles with his brothers. At that point, Joseph says, "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." He continues, "So, it was not you who sent me here, but God" (45:4-5).
Aviva Zornberg explores this passage in The Beginning of Desire and writes that the theology that Joseph articulates here is not derived from theory but from his lived experience. She says. "He is talking about his personal perspective on his own life, and he is doing so in order to provide his brothers with the only stratagem that will help them to scotch their own shame . . . Joseph has discovered a vocabulary in which to articulate his life" (p. 335).
While Judah's theology leads him to embrace the idea that everything is caused by his actions, Joseph's life experience leads him to a theology that is in some ways the opposite. We think we are acting out of our own motives, but God's plan is greater than all. Behind the scenes, God’s plan guides all of what we do and all of what happens to us. Both Judah and Joseph agree that the events of this world have meaning, but as the sinner, Judah focuses on taking responsibility and as the aggrieved, Joseph focuses on understanding the meaning embedded even in what seems like a human-created tragedy.
I would like to suggest that this is a very helpful guide for us as we think about forgiveness. Each of us needs to reflect on God's role and our role in relation to what we have done and what has been done to us. Aviva Zornberg stresses that Joseph's theology comes out of his experience—it would be irresponsible, even cruel, for someone else to tell Joseph that all that happened to him was for a blessing. But if he authentically comes to that understanding of his life, then those of us who bear witness to his story must appreciate the power of his understanding of his life.
When we confront our acts and recognize the extent of the harm we have caused, we are vulnerable to collapsing under the weight of shame. Shame can tell us that we are worthless. Not just that our deeds were wrong, but that our very essence is wrong. It can be overwhelming to try to pick ourselves up out of that shame. According to Aviva Zornberg's interpretation, if Joseph could not help his brothers cope with their shame for their behavior, they would not be able to enter into a new relationship with him. They would not have been able to experience any hope for themselves. This does not mean that Joseph is responsible for allaying his brothers' shame, but the shame can be an insurmountable stumbling block that can prevent teshuvah.
As the text demonstrates, that shame is only partly ameliorated by Joseph's telling of his story. The brothers find it hard to believe that Joseph does not hold their actions against them. Their shame shapes the story further on, when the brothers lie, telling Joseph that before Jacob died he instructed them to tell him to forgive them. (See Gen. 50:16-17.) This aspect of the story captures a great truth in relationships. Even when a person has been forgiven by someone he or she has hurt, that person may not be able to believe that the forgiveness was actually granted. His or her own judgment against himself or herself may be so great that the assumption is that the forgiveness is not real, that underneath lies resentment and a withholding of forgiveness.
Our ability to seek forgiveness and our ability to extend forgiveness to others depends on our being able to make a leap out of the familiar narratives in which we are anchored into new territory in which we are vulnerable. It is only by letting go of the familiar that new, healing narratives can emerge.
Rabbi Mychal Springer
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.