It is a challenging process to rebuild a relationship with those who have done you harm. In the wake of the reconciliation process within the Reform Movement, for example, the Movement has been looking to create avenues for addressing harmful behavior. The initial stage involved acknowledging what was wrong; the next step is working to rebuild trust.
In this week's portion, Vayechi, there is still a current of mistrust among Joseph and his brothers. The brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives, offering to become Joseph's slaves. They feel that they should be punished for their misdeeds, but, fearing death, they are hoping to negotiate a lesser punishment.
Yet, how can Joseph's brothers possibly atone for selling their brother into slavery? Should they not become slaves themselves? It would be a kind of poetic justice, but it would not repair the harm that Joseph had experienced at their hands. We should note that the brothers truly felt remorse for what they had done. They felt that they should suffer the same fate as their brother, and in Genesis 50:18, they ask to be Joseph's slaves.
Faced with his brothers' remorse, Joseph forgives freely, without rancor: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result - the survival of many people,"he says in Genesis 50:20. He understands that they are genuinely sorry and accepts them as they are, and where they are.
Note that Joseph does not claim that "it was nothing" - after all, their actions caused lasting damage. He spent his youth in servitude. He may have had scars on his body from those years; he may still have suffered nightmares; he may have been suffering the long-time effects of poor nutrition. What they did caused genuine and lasting harm. Nonetheless, Joseph decides that his earlier experience will not define all aspects of his life in the future. That's an important point: though Joseph was indeed a victim, it is not his primary identity.
At this point, Joseph's life has gone exceedingly well: he is wealthy, powerful, married, and has children. Forgiveness might be a more difficult task for those who have experienced abuse but experienced less desirable outcomes. Each person forgives - or not - in their own time and on their own terms. He also would have been reasonable if he had decided to exclude his brothers from his life. Still, I am inspired by his choice to forgive.
Times, roles, and needs change. We cannot stay mired in our past, refusing to change how we view the world. Joseph finds meaning in his life by forgiving his family.
Sometimes you find yourself on the wrong side of a discussion or the painful side of an argument. Sometimes a member of your family has the power to do lasting harm to you or others; if this happens, you should know that bad behavior is bad behavior - regardless of the source. But each of us has the capacity to eventually transcend our worst impulses, to become the person we are meant to be. All of us have that power - once we are willing to admit that we were wrong. In my work as a congregational rabbi, I hear all kinds of family stories: stories of estrangement, betrayal, abuse, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Not every story has a happy ending, but many involve a process of growth and self-understanding.
Joseph's story is so moving because he and his brothers outgrew their old patterns and transformed their relationship into a new pattern of being. What did it take to change? It took an expression of remorse on the part of Joseph's brothers and an acknowledgment on Joseph's part that there had been damage.
In my own case, I was initially reluctant to join the Teshuvah Working Group for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which had been convened to make recommendations and address the harms that had occurred. I was still feeling wounded and hurt. But, to me, it made sense to acknowledge those feelings, work through them, and try to emulate Joseph by making the situation better through participation. Several meetings brought me to tears - it was an emotional, difficult process. But I am also proud of the work we have done together and will continue to do.
To learn more about the URJ's Ethics and Accountability work, visit the Ethics Accountability page on urj.org.