Vayechi 5781 – Foregiveness

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph certainly had cause to hold a grudge against them. Joseph must decide what path he should take in establishing a new relationship with his brothers, one of forgiveness and acceptance or one of vengeance and retribution. In all the years that had gone by without contact with his brothers, Joseph’s feeling of grievance and anger never changed. It was not until they talked to each other that there was a possibility of reconciliation. But even once they started talking, it still took years for them to come to a stable resolution. Time heals, but it takes time for the healing to occur.

Note what must happen for forgiveness to occur in this case. First, Joseph hides his identity to his brothers to make sure they were capable of remorse and atonement. He knows they understand they have done wrong because they acknowledged their guilt. Second, Joseph arranged a trial to test whether Judah is, indeed, a changed person. Judah demonstrated complete repentance and passed the test. These two elements tell us what has changed in the brothers so that they, the wrongdoers, can be forgiven.

When Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers, he says,” And now, 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”. This sounds like forgiveness, but the word “forgiveness” is not used. The brothers may have assumed that Joseph still intended to take revenge but not during the life of their father. That is what provokes the drama at the end of this week’s parashah.  After the death of Jacob, the brothers were worried that Jacob would not forgive them for what they had done. But there is also a change in Joseph. He has reframed his life and his relationship with God. Joseph responded to them, saying,” Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended me harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives”. This change is what allows the victim, Joseph, to forgive

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this is a crucial moment in the history of faith. It marks the birth of forgiveness, the first recorded moment in which one person forgives another for a wrong they have done. While Joseph does not use the word forgiveness, he makes clear that he dismisses all thoughts of revenge.

Being hurt by someone, particularly someone you love or trust, can cause anger, sadness, and confusion.  You might want revenge.  Revenge is one way of restoring the social order, but it is a very costly and dangerous one because it can lead to a vicious circle of retaliation that has no natural stopping point.

There is a Chinese proverb,” If you’re going to pursue revenge, you’d better dig two graves”, which is saying your resentment will destroy you as well.

Instead, you should choose forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the release of resentment or anger. It is a conscious decision to be good to people who were not good to you.  Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the behavior of the other person. In fact, if his or her behavior can be excused then there is no real need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is necessary when the behavior is inexcusable, when the person involved really should not have acted in such a fashion.  We too often make the mistake of saying:” It’s okay; I know you didn’t mean it” or” it doesn’t matter; I realize you are under strain and I probably provoked you”.  Forgiveness begins where excuses leave off. One does not have to return to the same relationship or accept the same harmful behaviors from an offender. You can forgive someone and still know you can’t trust them.

Forgiveness is not dependent upon confession. Forgiveness is an action that I may choose, and which is not dependent upon the behavior of the other person.  Nor does forgiveness require an agreed version of the past. This is crucial because arguing over who said what and who replied in what fashion frequently postpones or destroys entirely the process of forgiveness.

Getting another person to change his or her actions, behavior or words is also not the point of forgiveness. Forgiveness is vitally important for the health of those who have been victimized. Think of forgiveness more about how it can change your life – by bringing you peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness can take away the power the other person continues to exert over your life.

Forgiveness is about goodness, by extending mercy to those who have harmed us, even if they don’t deserve it. Forgiveness is a process with many steps. Working out forgiveness can help us increase our own self-esteem and give us a sense of inner strength and safety. Forgiveness can heal us and allow us to move on in life with meaning and purpose as Joseph did. Studies have shown that forgiving others produce a strong psychological benefit for the one who forgives. It has been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, unhealthy anger, and symptoms of PTSD.

Most people have been hurt or betrayed by others. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger and bitterness – even vengeance. But if you do not practice forgiveness, you might be the one pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude, and joy.

Forgiving another person is one thing, but what happens when we can commit the offense ourselves? It is important to take responsibility for mistakes. Key to this process is owning up to one’s mistakes, understanding why they occurred, and helping rectify the situation. Reflect on why the event occurred and identify how to avoid a similar offense in the future. Then forgive yourself.

After you have been able to self-forgive, you will also need to engage in seeking forgiveness from others whom you have harmed and right the wrongs as best as you can. It is important to be prepared for the possibility that the other person may not be ready to forgive you and to practice patience and humility.

All of us suffer our own personal grudges and animosities in life. Each of us must decide how to respond to such challenge. Will I become bitter, or will I instead choose a more difficult route of forgiveness. Like Joseph, each one of us must seek out the appropriate words of kindness and appreciation for a shared destiny that will reconcile us with those we have injured and those who have injured us.