How Trust Can Be Restored

Joseph's coffin.png

Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

The news stream today is filled with stories of abuse and betrayal, and we might wonder whether deeds like this can ever be forgiven. And even if they are, can the perpetrators ever be trusted again? 

The tale of Joseph and his brothers, on one of its many levels, is a story of forgiveness that ends with an unforgettable picture of trust restored.

The turning-point of the story came in last week’s parasha, when Judah offered himself in exchange for his younger brother Benjamin, and Joseph finally revealed himself. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.” 

Human-to-human forgiveness frees us from the cruel, never-ending process of trying to pay for our misdeeds and getting others to pay for theirs—or resenting them if they don’t. Forgiveness allows family life and community life to continue on, despite our inevitable shortcomings and even outright sins. But, of course, forgiveness doesn’t magically fix everything. If we have done wrong, we might be forgiven, but we still have to face the consequences of our actions and make amends. Only then do we start to regain trust. If we’ve been wronged, we might forgive but that doesn’t mean we trust the offender. Forgiveness paves the way for a trust-restoration process in our families and communities, however extended it might be.

It’s likely that Joseph had forgiven his brothers even before he revealed himself to them, as Rabbi Sacks claims: “Joseph forgives his brothers without their asking for it, without their apology, and long before he tells them who he is.” But Judah, representing all the brothers, must demonstrate repentance by reversing the wrong they'd done to Joseph. Judah must be ready to pay the price by doing the right thing for Joseph's stand-in, Benjamin. Only then can Joseph begin to show his forgiveness. And only in this week’s parasha, after the death of Jacob, does the terminology of forgiveness become explicit. The brothers plead with Joseph: “Your father gave this order before he died: ‘Say to Yosef, “I beg you now, please forgive your brothers’ crime and wickedness in doing you harm.”’ So now, we beg of you, forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father” (Gen 50:16b–17 CJB, emphasis added).

Without forgiveness, the whole story of Joseph and his brothers never could have reached this final chapter. Joseph had to forgive his brothers before he could create a way for them to prove themselves, as they did through Judah in last week’s parasha. But forgiveness alone doesn't restore trust. The offender has to earn my trust, which takes time, and forgiveness provides him the opportunity to do so. Forgiveness in itself doesn’t restore the relationship, but it makes restoration possible.

When the brothers finally ask for forgiveness after Jacob’s death, Joseph responds with words of reassurance: 

But Yosef said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Am I in the place of God? You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good—so that it would come about as it is today, with many people’s lives being saved. So don’t be afraid—I will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he comforted them, speaking kindly to them. (Gen 50:19–21)

Years later, and a few verses down, Joseph prepares for his own death.

Yosef said to his brothers, “I am dying. But God will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Avraham, Yitz’chak and Ya‘akov.” Then Yosef took an oath from the sons of Isra’el: “God will surely remember you, and you are to carry my bones up from here.” So Yosef died at the age of 110, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin in Egypt. (Gen 50:24–26)

In the end Joseph, the dominant one, the one before whom all the brothers, including Judah, have bowed down several times, becomes dependent on his brothers. And he unabashedly states his dependence: “you are to carry my bones up from here.” Joseph the leading son who saves his entire family, Joseph the ruler of Egypt who is embalmed like an Egyptian and placed in an Egyptian coffin, turns his gaze from Egypt to the land promised to his forefathers—and must depend on his brothers to get him there.

Before Jacob died, he had told Joseph, “I will lie down with my fathers and you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their grave.” After his final blessing on his twelve sons, Jacob reiterated this instruction to all of them (49:29–30), and they carried out this wish promptly. Joseph’s final instructions, in contrast, provide for an intermediate period. It’s not until God brings all the children of Israel up from Egypt that Joseph’s bones are to go up with them for his final burial. Why the delay? Perhaps conditions had deteriorated in Egypt for the sons of Israel, but there’s also a deeper reason. Joseph, who was rejected and then separated from his brothers for over twenty years, will not allow himself to be separated again. For as long as his brothers remain in Egypt, he too will remain with them. There will come a time when the entire family of Abraham will be reunited in the Promised Land. Until that time, however, Joseph foregoes the privilege of being buried with his fathers. Until the brothers are able to go home, Joseph will not go home, but will remain with his brothers in solidarity. Moreover, he will trust his brothers to bear him up and carry him to his resting place when they do depart. 

The tale of Joseph and his brothers comes full circle. It began as the brothers cast Joseph into a pit and returned home without him. Now, at the end, Joseph will descend into another pit, death itself, and trust his brothers to lift him up and carry him with them when they take their journey home. Joseph dies with his mission fulfilled and his family restored at last.

The brothers had to earn Joseph’s trust, but in the end he bestows a gift of trust upon them by allowing them to reverse their old sin. Thus, the Torah reveals the boundless possibilities of forgiveness and restored trust—even in our day of betrayal and distrust. 

 Adapted from A Life of Favor: A Family Therapist Examines the Story of Joseph and His Brothers, by Rabbi Russ Resnik

Addendum: Who deserves forgiveness?

This commentary opens with a question, or two actually: “The news stream today is filled with stories of abuse and betrayal, and we might wonder whether deeds like this can ever be forgiven. And even if they are, can the perpetrators ever be trusted again?” Because it doesn't answer these questions directly, it could create the impression that victims of the sort of sexual harassment and abuse that have been demanding our attention lately just need to forgive and move on. And worse, that the onus of forgiving and restoring trust is on the victim. That’s not at all what I intend, so allow me to provide a few points of clarification:

1.      Forgiveness can never be demanded or coerced—especially not by the perpetrator or anyone advocating for him/her. This ban includes those who are advising or counseling the victim—they are not to pressure the victim to forgive in any way. It must be a free choice.

2.      If one chooses to forgive, he or she is personally dropping the charges against the perpetrator, not declaring him innocent or excusing or minimizing the behavior.  

3.      Dropping the charges in this specific sense does not preclude taking appropriate action. If a relative abused you as a child, make sure that he or she doesn’t get the opportunity to abuse someone else. If you were sexually harassed at work, report that to the proper authorities. Forgiving does not leave you powerless.

4.      You don’t forgive to benefit the perpetrator, but to benefit yourself and your own well-being. The perpetrator’s sins can bind the victim emotionally and spiritually; forgiveness breaks that tie. This is especially relevant when the perpetrator is unrepentant or unavailable . . . or dead.

5.      Forgiveness takes power away from the perpetrator and gives it to the victim, who is now no longer the victim. Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects says that by forgiving, we “become a hero instead of a victim in the story [we] tell.”

6.      Forgiveness in itself does not restore trust or relationship. That’s the point of the original post I’m commenting on. We can choose to forgive freely and unconditionally, but trust must be earned and proven. I can forgive the offender, but he or she will have to earn the trust that’s been destroyed, if any kind of relationship is to be restored—and often that’s just not possible.

7.      Forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of the gravest offenses, is a process, not a once-and-for-all event.

Even the worst deeds of abuse and betrayal can be forgiven by the victim, who might choose to do so, not to benefit the perpetrator, but for his or her own benefit. So, to answer the question of my title, “Who Deserves Forgiveness?” the former-victims do, because when they forgive they regain power and freedom from the offender.

Rabbi Russ


Russ Resnik