Messy, Imperfect Forgiveness: Parshat Vayechi 2023/5783, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
The theme of forgiveness is a predominant one in the Joseph narrative. Joseph’s revelation of his true identity and move to meet Judah’s initiative and approach, in last week’s Torah portion, offers one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, with requisite shock, tears, and intrigue that make it feel more like we are watching a movie (or a musical!) than reading a text. When Joseph reveals his true identity and says to his brothers: “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… it was not you who sent me here, but God,” we as the audience feel a palpable sense of relief, as we imagine the burden has been lifted from the guilty brothers.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, the Joseph story is the first historically recorded experience of human forgiveness. As I probe further into the Joseph narrative and into this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, I find that the story is important not only for that fact — but because it reveals an essential truth about the nature of forgiveness — that forgiveness is a process. Despite the dramatic moment of Joseph’s self-revelation, forgiveness is not all rainbows and butterflies, and big gestures of tears and hugs after decades years estranged. It is messy, imperfect, challenging; it is hard work.
Let’s focus on a scene from the Joseph story in our parsha, Parshat Veyechi. The patriarch Jacob has died, and his body, after some Egyptian rituals, is carried back to the land of Canaan and buried in the cave of his ancestors. After a long, harrowing journey back (which some estimate the total process of time from his death is about 4 months), the 11 brothers gather together in a state of panic. They worry: what if Joseph’s promises of forgiveness only existed for the sake of their father? What if he never intended to forgive us, rather wait for this moment to avenge us?
They then do another historic first — tell a white lie. They tell Joseph that before his death, their father Jacob had written an instruction to his dreamer son, saying: “Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.” Even more, they throw themselves at Joseph’s feet and say “We are prepared to be your slaves.” This is a fairly shocking response to Joseph after the death of their father, especially given Joseph’s repeated commitment to forgiveness as well as his recognition that though they meant it for bad, the truth was that their problematic behavior saved lives.
The brothers’ panic and overreaction raises many questions: What is behind the panic and desperation of the brothers? Hadn’t Joseph already forgiven his brothers? Was Joseph treating them differently? Had he been distant all along? Was their truth in their concern?
As we know, problematic and contradictory sections of the Torah unleash the creativity of the rabbinic interpreters, who seek to make sense of the text, to explain why the Torah does what it does. One midrash that I uncovered (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayechi 17) answers the textual dilemma in an insightful way. According to this imaginative interpretation, on the long journey from Canaan back to Egypt, the brothers come upon the very pit where Joseph met his future fate — where he was abandoned, about to be left to die, and then eventually pulled out and sold into slavery
Before I continue with the midrash, let’s just imagine that on the screen in our minds. What it must have felt like for Joseph to see that place again, the trauma that must have been revisited. He had thought he processed his past, his pain and moved on — but facing that physical reminder…had he?
And what it must have been like for the brothers to see that place again. They probably had many sleepless nights imagining that place and here it was- and here they were standing with the one they had wronged so terribly. What regret, what pain!
The midrash goes on:
When Joseph saw the pit, he went up towards it, while his brothers hung behind to watch him. He looked at the pit. And he BLESSED it. He blessed the pit with the benediction “Blessed be the place where He performed a miracle for me.” As painful as it was, Joseph had accepted his fate and recognized how the trials of his own life — in the God’s eye view — had benefited others.
Now, while Joseph is having this moment of reconciliation and blessing, the 11 brothers are standing a bit behind watching him stare quietly at the pit. This is the moment when they begin to panic. What is he doing? Why is he stopping — what is his intention? And then the wheels start to spin: He must still be angry with us. He must hate us. He must wish us pain or worse… until they concoct this wacky plan to deceive him with his dead father’s words.
On face value, this midrash does what a good midrash does- it gives an explanation for unexplained behavior. It creates a precipitating event that explains the brothers’ panic. But I think it is powerful because it speaks to/reveals the human truth of the complex, uneasy road of forgiveness- and in particular the road to self- forgiveness, perhaps the most difficult of all.
If we look into our own lives, I imagine we will find that there have been times when we have been Joseph and there are times in our lives where we have been the brothers.
Let’s consider Joseph: Looking at that pit must have been difficult beyond words — yet Joseph doesn’t just stand there and stare, he goes out of his way to make a blessing, in other words to make sense of his path in life and to recognize that even the pain that was caused him helped make him a better person, far from that selfish kid who told everyone about his dreams. By virtue of being human, I am sure that each and every one of us has been wounded in some way, albeit some more significantly than others. And while I assert that one does not have to forgive — each of us has to reconcile with how we became the person we are. And would you know that our resiliency is often born out of pain!
Getting to the point of blessing is not always possible — we have to pause, we have to stop, be open to confronting our past like Joseph did in that moment. And while we do not need to say “everything happens for a reason” we will nevertheless create blessings from the lessons learned through our past.
In terms of the vantage point of the brothers in this midrash: Perhaps this is even more relatable! We are often our own worst critic. As humans, we inevitably screw up. We do something wrong, something we are not proud of. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in more significant ones. And let’s hope- for those things, we have apologized and tried to reconcile. And, perhaps we have been forgiven by that other — yet we cannot find a way to forgive ourselves. No matter how many times they tell us “we are good,” we might find it hard to believe that WE are good, that WE are whole.
As the brothers look back at that pit, they cannot remember that Joseph has forgiven them; they can only see their mistakes. As in so many of the Torah stories, especially those in Genesis, perhaps the brothers’ behavior in this scene is there to provide a mirror for us, to show us the ways in which we might also let our insecurities and self-criticism take over when we have done something wrong. And again looking into that mirror, we recognize that the other person involved is having their own experience — put simply, it’s not always about us!
Let this teaching invite us to consider: How can we learn to let go of our past mistakes once we have done repair? How might we have compassion for ourselves, as others have had compassion towards us?
This midrash and the long and winding arc of the Joseph story reveals a deeply human truth: the path to forgiveness and reconciliation is not a straight one. We may not always be able to find our way to the blessing, but if we look towards the pit and if we are gentle and courageous, perhaps we might find wholeness and understanding and peace. And if we look at the pain we have caused others, perhaps we might be able to recognize the harm done, accept responsibility, and also see ourselves as worthy of forgiveness.