Forgiveness Forms the Future
Parashat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27
By Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
“I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen 45:3). With these words, the estrangement between Joseph and his brothers that began with the words, “They hated him and could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen 37:4), comes to an end. The narrative of Joseph and those he impacted (Gen 37–50) is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah. We see him as the beloved, coddled child, as an adolescent dreamer hated by his brothers, as a slave, as a prisoner, and then as the second most powerful ruler in Egypt, positioned to save his family from a devastating famine. It is truly a story of “everything turns out okay in the end,” but more importantly it is a story of change, teshuvah (repentance), and forgiveness.
The narrative reaches its climax just before Joseph’s revelation. Benjamin was on the cusp of being arrested and imprisoned, and the other brothers of being sent home. They were offered an escape route; they simply had to walk away. The climax comes when Judah steps up and delivers one of the most passionate speeches in the Tanakh, offering his own freedom for that of Benjamin’s. The story has come full circle; the one responsible for selling Joseph into slavery offers to become the slave of his own victim. The emotional tension continues building; how will Joseph respond? Emotionally overwhelmed, he orders everyone but his brothers to leave the room. Judah’s pathos and repeated mention of his father (no less than 15 times) has shattered Joseph’s self-restraint. After the room is cleared, Joseph reveals his identity and inquires about his father.
The first change we encounter in the parasha is that of Judah. The man who once was willing to sell his brother Joseph into slavery was now prepared to suffer the same fate rather than see it happen to his brother Benjamin. Judah’s callousness had been replaced by compassion and concern. The turning point in Judah’s life occurred when Tamar revealed the truth about his guilt, without shaming him (Gen 38). Judah admitted his wrongdoing and proclaimed, “She was more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26). Judah’s acknowledgement of his guilt, his confession, and his subsequent change exemplifies the true meaning of teshuvah. His self-sacrifice on behalf of Benjamin before Joseph, demonstrates the depth and veracity of his teshuvah. In fact, the entire narrative from the brothers’ first arrival in Egypt to Joseph’s revelation of who he is, illustrates teshuvah.
Judah’s repentance makes way for Joseph’s forgiveness.
Joseph was no longer the overindulged little boy or the impetuous, possibly arrogant, adolescent. He had become a man who realized that everything that had happened to him was somehow God’s plan. Not only had Joseph changed, but he had not allowed any root of bitterness to grow in him (Heb 12:15). Instead of letting the events of his life harden his heart, and turn him away from Hashem, thereby allowing a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit to grow (Deut 29:17 [28:18]), he made the choice to walk after him with all of his heart, soul, and strength. Like Joseph, we too have a choice; will we walk in forgiveness and choose to believe that Hashem has a plan, even when we don’t see it, or will we let circumstances cause us to become bitter? We all work and plan, get hurt, struggle, and face difficulties that can embitter us—what will we choose?
We would do well to imitate Joseph by retelling the stories of our own personal past. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this “reframing the past.” Joseph no longer saw himself as a person wronged by his brothers, but as a man on a life-saving mission of God, to save Egypt from starvation, and provide for his family, the family of Jacob. By forgiving and reframing his past, Joseph could live free of anger and a sense of injustice. Such choices changed his negative feelings about the past to see a hopeful future. None of us can change the past, but each of us can change how we think about the past, and this in turn changes the future. The past is not predestined to be repeated. No matter the situation in which you or I may find ourselves, we can change our future by forgiving and reshaping our responses. Our immediate circumstances may not change, but we will gain the strength, courage and hope to continue on until, like Joseph, everything becomes clear.
Our parasha not only brings the saga of Joseph and his brothers to an end, it brings the patriarchal period of history full-circle and almost to an end. Genesis 46:1–47:10 sums up the past and prepares for a new beginning, the redemption of Israel from Egypt and the birth of the nation. Abraham fled to Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12:10), and Jacob does likewise (Gen 46:5); Abraham’s calling began with a divine revelation (Gen 12:1–3), and Jacob’s finishes with a similar experience (Gen 46:2); Jacob began his journey at Beersheva (Gen 28:10), and has his final revelation in the same place (Gen 46:1–4). This is the last time Hashem’s voice will be heard until he speaks to Moses. Hashem’s promise to Abraham to make him a great nation (Gen 12:2) is reiterated to Jacob (Gen 46:3), but now it is explained that the divine promise of peoplehood will take place in Egypt.
Joseph’s and Judah’s actions brought about the restoration of family unity and the collective ingathering of Jacob’s offspring in Egypt. This led to their enslavement, redemption, establishment as a nation, and covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Haftarah (Ezek 37:15–28) presents a future redeemed and reunited nation and the reestablishment of the covenant between God and Israel. The reconciliation of the brothers is a portent of the prophecy in Ezekiel.
May we heed the words of Nachmanides, “all that occurred to the forebears is a sign for their descendants” (Commentary on Genesis 12:6), and emulate our ancestors as we work and wait for the national redemption of Israel and the salvation of the world.
Illustration by Elhanan ben Avraham