Vayechi 5783 – Foregiveness

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

The book of Genesis ends in parshah Vayechi with three significant scenes. First, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe. Second, Jacob blesses his 12 sons. Third, after the death of Jacob, the brothers asked Joseph to forgive them for selling him into slavery, which he does. Evidently, the brothers harbor the suspicion that Joseph was merely biding his time until their father died. It seems to have been the principle in those days that sons did not take revenge within the family while the father is alive.

Joseph chooses to tell a different version of past events, minimizing his brothers’ malice while instead focusing on the beneficial final outcome. Joseph speaks directly to their fears and puts them at rest. He says:” You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” He promises them that he will look after their needs. It is clear Joseph wants to move on from the issue and has managed to reinterpret and rationalize prior events.

When Joseph speaks to his brothers, this is a crucial moment in the history of faith. It marks the birth of forgiveness, the first recorded moment at which one person forgives another for the wrong they have suffered, although the word forgiveness is not used. But Joseph makes it clear that he forgives all thoughts of revenge.

Note what had to happen for forgiveness to be born. Joseph engages in an elaborate plan, hiding his identity, to make sure his brothers were capable of remorse and atonement. He finds they know they have done wrong. They acknowledged their guilt and asked for forgiveness. There is also change in Joseph. He has reframed his life, so that the entire story of his relationship with his brothers has now become secondary to the drama of Divine Providence which is still unfolding.

Joseph demonstrates that he has learned the power of peace and forgiveness. He is gaining the ability to look back on past events in the light of new insights and experiences, seeing past his own hurt to grasp the bigger picture. He doesn’t deny his own pain, but it no longer controls him. Therefore, he is now able to fully connect with his family whom he still deeply loves, despite the immense pain they caused.

James Q Wilson, a Harvard political scientist, said the family is” an arena in which conflicts occur and must be managed.” People within the family “love and quarrel, share and sulk, please and disappoint.” Families, he says,” are the world in which we shape and manage our emotions.”

The Torah is giving us a message here: family is always the priority. Family is more important than everything else- the land, the nation, politics, economics, the pursuit of power and the accumulation of wealth.

In an essay, Rabbi Moshe Becker notes that we have all been offended at one time or another by the words or actions of a family member. Parents, children, spouses and siblings do end up hurting each other, willfully or unintentionally. It is never too early to begin to forgive. By taking ourselves less seriously, it becomes easier to forgive another. When it comes to the family, the ability to forgive is crucial. Family is permanent and having the strength to forgive is rewarding for all.

The need to forgive and, if possible, forget it is vitally important. Calmly confront wrongdoers and explain what they have done as a step towards reconciliation, not increased hostility. Parents easily forgive their children for their slips given intentionally or by accident. How parents treat their extended family members also gives important messages. Parental modeling of forgiveness is an important learning tool for children. Forgiveness is an ability that is within our power, especially in family situations.

Whether it’s a simple spat with your spouse or a long-held resentment toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict can go deeper than you may realize. It may be affecting your physical health.

In an article by a physician named Karen Swartz, she says:” there is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed. Forgiveness helps calm stress levels, leading to improved health.”

Forgiveness is not just about saying the words. Swartz says” It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not”. As you release the anger, resentment and hostility, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you. Swartz continues:” Forgiveness is a choice. You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to a person who has wronged you.”

Forgiveness is an essential thing to do for your own well-being and for your future health and sanity. Here are some reasons why being able to forgive frees you so you can move on with your life. First, when you forgive someone, you forgive yourself. When you forgive yourself, you allow resentment and hurt to be replaced by healing. Second, forgiving gets you out of the victim mode. It breaks the bonds that tie you negatively to another person. You can forgive while not forgetting. You may forgive someone and never choose to see that person again. Third, forgiveness frees you. It allows you to take your power back. You are no longer chained to an entity that saps your energy and takes the life out of you. Next, as mentioned, practicing forgiveness can have powerful health benefits. Observational studies, and even some randomized trials, suggest that forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility, reduced substance abuse, higher self-esteem, and greater life satisfaction. But forgiving people is not always easy. Finally, as with Joseph, forgiving helps you move forward on your spiritual path. Forgiveness encourages compassion. Forgiveness is an act of kindness and goodness. It is a path to peace.

To quote John Q Wilson again:” we learn to cope with the people of this world because we learn to cope with the members of our family.”

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that, surprisingly, is what Genesis is all about. Not about the creation of the world, which occupies only one chapter, but about how to handle family conflict. The book of Genesis is, in essence, a big, messy story about family. As soon as Abraham’s descendants can create strong families, they can move from Genesis to Exodus and their birth as a nation.

In summary, this week’s Torah portion is a very clear message on the importance of family forgiveness. Joseph forgives all his brothers for their malicious act, realizing that he and his brothers share a common identity and future that should not be jeopardized by grudges, even if they seem justified. Jacob also forgives all his sons for their cruel deception. This is a powerful Torah story with a very relevant message for life today. In Judaism, when we do wrong, as we all do, there is a way forward: to confess, express remorse, atone, make amends and change.