Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Vayiggash 2014

Parashat Vayiggash
24th December 2014 - Cantor Gershon Silins

How can one forgive the unforgivable? This question echoes through the ages, at the heart of the longest and most intractable conflicts we know, the ones that never end because each unforgivable act is followed by another that echoes it, and carries it forward into new, and equally unforgivable, territory. In each of these conflicts, we can see from the outside that they can never be resolved without some kind of absolution, and yet from the inside, the undeniable fact of being a victim cannot be forgotten.

In our portion this week, Vayyigash, we encounter one instance of that problem, and its resolution. It is a personal and family story, not a national one, but, ultimately, all politics is local.

Before the events of our portion, Jacob sent Joseph to see whether all was well with his brothers and the flock. When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they conspired to kill him, throw him into a pit and tell their father that a beast had devoured him. Reuben persuaded them not to kill him but just throw him into a pit, hoping to rescue him later. But Joseph was found by slave traders and sold into slavery in Egypt, where his fortunes seemed at first to be hopeless. Then, in a dramatic series of events, everything changed for him, and he rose to become a courtier with royal authority in Egypt. When his brothers appeared seeking food during the famine that Joseph had predicted, they were brought before him, not knowing that he was their brother. He put them through cruel trials, partly it seems to find out if they are still as bad as they were, and partly to make them suffer. As this portion opens, Judah comes forward to plead for mercy from this man, who seems about to punish the family for no reason that they can imagine. And then Joseph reveals himself and makes a dramatic reconciliation with them.

A crucial question was asked by Abravanel: Joseph’s half-brothers deliberately and knowingly put him in harm’s way, and their intent was certainly to kill him or, at the very least, to do him a grievous injury. One could say that it was a fluke that their act of violence turned out well for everyone concerned, but that does not mitigate the offence. A person, says Abravanel, is not judged by the accidental outcome of his deeds but by his intent; the accidental results are irrelevant to the moral dimension. How can we applaud Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers? On “Law and Order,” (my principal legal source) they would have been hauled before a judge and probably jailed, not welcomed into the palace and given the best land in Egypt.

There is no question that Joseph is justified in feeling furious outrage at his brothers. He knows that they hated him and wanted to kill him, and he suffered many humiliating trials as result. It is true that he was able, by luck, courage and native ability, to pull himself from the depths of humiliation to a virtually royal estate, but that was not the intent of his brothers, and it is clear from his actions that he is still so angry with them that he will not even reveal his identity to them. As this portion begins, he seems about to take final vengeance upon them. And it is here that the story changes radically from a story of personal revenge for an unforgivable act into a redemptive narrative that is so significant that it is one of the founding stories of our people.

There’s a deeper understanding of the way the world works embedded in this portion. Joseph says to his brothers, “it was not you who sent me here but God.” Joseph was always destined for greatness, and as the story progressed, it appeared that the greatness he was headed towards was as a courtier and royal advisor. But the path of his life led him to understand that the simple answer is not always the best answer. In his case, this understanding led him to reconcile with the brothers who had betrayed him in the worst possible way. The greatness that he was destined for was ultimately not the accident of his material elevation, but his growing understanding of restorative justice.

Is it harder to forgive the intimate betrayals of family, or the generations-long tribal and national hatreds that are at the basis of so much of our history? The hardest tasks, I would venture, are the ones that are given to us to do; the ones that others must do are always clearer and easier. Imagine for a moment that the story ended a different way: Joseph has his half-brothers hauled off and executed, saves his full brother Benjamin, and sends for his father. Justice and revenge satisfied. But we rightly recoil from such an outcome. Joseph’s faith (“it was not you that sent me, but God”) is the faith that sees that the world should not function on the basis of vengeance, even when we are so overcome with fury that we can’t see past it.

If, indeed, as Abravanel suggests, what Joseph’s brothers did is too heinous to be forgiven, since the outcome does not change their culpability, perhaps it is not precisely forgiveness that we are talking about here, at least not in the way we often think of it. There are times we give up our wish for vengeance or punishment not because we have forgotten the injury or wiped clean the moral slate; we move past the event for two reasons: first, because the harm caused by taking vengeance would outweigh the benefits, and second, because if we can’t somehow let go of the thing, we do harm to ourselves and the values we hold dear. It may be that this is the ethical calculation behind Joseph’s decision: could his father and the rest of his family survive the loss of the brothers? And could he live with himself, having punished them? He also may have realized that although all of them were responsible for what they did, not all of them had the same intention; Reuben had hoped to save him, and Judah, in his plea to the man he does not yet know is his brother, shows his own moral courage and understanding. So, indeed, it is not forgiveness that is at stake here but rather restorative justice; what is it that can be salvaged from the atrocities of the past that can allow life to go on? When more and more people can see themselves as both absolving and absolved; when people recognise injustice and feel compelled to remedy it, then transformation and redemption become possible.