Imperfect forgiveness

Imperfect forgiveness

Parshat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27

The story of Joseph and his brothers is a story of life and death. The brothers seek to destroy Joseph; a famine attacks the land; Joseph as Egyptian prime minister threatens the life of the brothers including his own blood-brother Benjamin; and finally, the midrash reads Judah’s outburst at the story’s climax (Parshat Vayigash) as an intent to kill Joseph and even Pharoah. Judah uses harsh words, puts his own life on the line for Benjamin vowing never to sever his bond with a brother again. A life for a life. Finally, the drama is too much for Joseph, and he discloses himself to his brothers.

I heard an interpretation through Dr. Moses Pava of Yeshiva University that teaches that Judah discovers Joseph’s true identity before his speech in Chapter 44. “Joseph” reveals clues: He knows the birth order of the brothers, he refers to God by the Hebrew “Elohim.” This is the reason that the midrash imagines a contest of wills between the two brothers in the climatic scene. Afterall, it was Judah who sparked the idea that Joseph should be “disappeared” by selling him into slavery rather than abandoning him in the pit. Judah’s speech is not a contrite plea for forgiveness. It is a hostile threat that does not acknowledge guilt for the sale of Joseph — the same “torn by a wild beast” story is trotted out — and insinuates shame for the one who would take Benjamin away from his suffering father. This is not the classic repentance tale as others may see it. Judah knowingly is about to challenge Joseph to a duel before Joseph cuts off his plot entirely.

What do we gain from such a reading? We must remember that the schism between Judah and Joseph goes back to the competition and resentment between the two mothers Rachel and Leah. The resentment continues with drama into the adulthood of the brothers, the sons of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin) and the sons of Leah (10 in all). Joseph wears a colorful coat, a gift from his father. Joseph spies on his brothers. Joseph dreams dreams of his brothers subjugating themselves to him. When the brothers eliminate Joseph, it is a continuation of the war between the Leahites and the Rachelites. Joseph is the bad seed. One theory goes that the reason Joseph asks to see Benjamin during their brothers’ visit in Egypt is that he is fearful that the brothers have killed him, too, thus eliminating the other Rachelite of the family. If they are unable to produce him, he too will be endangered. He has come to fear no one in Egypt until his brothers come seeking vengeance. This is the reason he has hid out in Egypt these past 20 years. He has also not sent a message to his father fearing reprisals from his brothers. There may even be a taste for revenge in the game he plays with his brothers accusing them of being spies and sending Simeon to prison.

Even after the climatic showdown between Judah and Joseph, the brothers never acknowledge their guilt. They do not ask for forgiveness, and Joseph does not forgive them. “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45.5). Despite Joseph’s divine gloss, the brothers are still doubting Joseph’s intentions at the end of the story (Genesis 50.21) and believe he will do them harm. The Book of Genesis is rounded out imperfectly with a story of imperfect forgiveness. It is as though both sets of brothers have declared a truce for the good of the nation but the seam down the middle can still be seen clearly. Is that not the way with our ordinary relationships? Sometimes we call a truce for peace in the house on the way to a more perfect forgiveness. During this time, we pray that time heals, that we learn more about the other and practice being able to walk around in their shoes. Forgiveness is not an instant act of grace that results in “never speaking about this incident again.” Forgiveness is a process. We forgive and do not forget. We accept each other’s humanity and seek to come to a deeper understanding of the soul.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is spiritual leader of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.