Can you say chutzpah? How about arrogance? Or is ignorance a more appropriate word for people behaving badly?
When I served a congregation in Hollywood, I met many performers who were both prominent and very fine human beings. But on occasion, I met one who plays a beloved movie or TV character and the actor, in real life, turned out not to be so nice. Similarly, as a student of religion, I remember a few professors who taught about morality but were known to lash out harshly at late arrivals to the classroom. We've all had occasion to observe this kind of contradiction in the behavior of a prominent person; a boss, politician, or community leader of high ideals who can be difficult to interact with. As I've heard Rabbi Larry Kushner point out, many of us know brilliant and spiritually enlightened teachers who, nonetheless, are very unpleasant people.
When people are important we may excuse them or overlook their behavior, but we certainly would not consider them models of empathy. So we need to ask, why do some people lose control in an emotional situation and feel entitled to satisfaction, while others behave with understanding and emotional maturity?
Thanks to a proliferation of TV and Internet programs that glorify poor manners, the shock value of bad language and poor behavior is diminished simply because examples are so readily available. Reality TV and people behaving badly is a redundancy.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph stands in quiet contrast to the current low standard of behavior so often on display. Just when we reach a climactic moment in the Genesis story, after Joseph's meeting with betrayal, slavery, and imprisonment, followed by his dream interpretation and rise to power, finally the drama comes to a climax. Joseph, second in command to the Pharaoh and distributor of food in a starving Egypt, faces his treacherous brothers and has both the opportunity and the power to have them punished or even killed. And what does he do?
We could justifiably expect reality TV behavior with revenge, tables turned, and the punishment and perhaps banishment of his brothers. Instead, Joseph astonishes—and perhaps disappoints—onlookers by offering his petulant and unsympathetic brothers forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation.
This would fail as a reality TV show. Where is the outrage? Where is the conflict?
No one would blame Joseph for at least lecturing his brothers and cajoling them for an apology. What happens instead? Joseph forgives them and explains that God was behind the whole thing. He absolves them. He puts their actions into a larger context. It should be noted that all of this happens after his brothers, at least Judah, have refused to victimize Benjamin as they long ago had done to Joseph.
Joseph has experienced both betrayal and divine assistance. He now has the opportunity to choose which of these experiences he will pass along. Will he favor justice or mercy? Revenge or forgiveness? As our Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us, we ask God to treat us with mercy.1 Shouldn't we expect to offer the same to those who wrong us?
Perhaps you have read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.2 One major character is Miss Havisham, the jilted bride who, years after her intended had left her at the altar, lives on in her decaying mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella.
Miss Havisham ordered long ago that all the clocks in her house be stopped at twenty minutes to nine, the exact hour she had learned of her betrayal. She continues to stubbornly wear her wedding dress. Her moldy wedding cake sits on the table, never to be eaten.
She has raised her adopted daughter to be a vision of beauty, but she has also made sure, through a carefully managed upbringing, that ice water runs through her veins. Miss Havisham has raised her young ward for one purpose only: to break the hearts of men, in revenge for her own abandonment. It is hard to imagine a more compelling image of a desolate house than hers.
Joseph took the opposite approach. His choosing forgiveness over retribution does not mean Joseph had a lack of passion. Joseph mirrored the sentiment that an Eastern sage (sometimes identified as Buddha) would later utter:
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
What Joseph models is the refusal to allow those evildoers any power over his life. Instead of permitting the resulting anger to destroy him, thus compounding the damage already done to him, he refuses to allow anger to take over his life and define his actions. He does not lose control of his emotions, but more importantly, he retains control over his life. Anger and fear do not direct his actions. He is able to choose how to respond to his brothers. He puts anger behind him and offers them new life.
For example, "Sh'ma Koleinu," Mishkan HaNefesh (NY: CCAR, 2015), pp. 98-100
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (London: Chapman and Hall, 1861)
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).
I remember learning the beautiful phrase "spiritual bacteria," from Rabbi Sam Stahl in San Antonio, Texas. He used the phrase to speak about that which eats away at our spirits when we hold on to anger. It is crucial for our own spiritual health to rid ourselves of these bacteria. I believe that is part of what Rabbi Goldberg is suggesting in his wonderful approach to this week's Torah portion, Vayigash.
If we look at the wider Genesis narrative, we recognize that our text that teaches us the stories of a dysfunctional family. But that is one of the beautiful aspects of our tradition. We are not handed down whitewashed tales of superhuman characters. Instead, we can identify with our ancient family members precisely because of their inadequacies and mistakes.
Among the many tales of dysfunction, we read about how Jacob battled with his brother Esau. He used that sibling rivalry to trick Esau out of his birthright. He then compounded that prank by tricking his father Isaac, on his deathbed, into blessing him instead of Esau.
Later, Jacob himself was tricked by Laban into marrying the wrong daughter. And he was forced to work an additional number of years to marry Rachel—the one he loved all along. To continue the cycle of dysfunction, Jacob showed favoritism to his son Joseph, causing strife amongst his children to the point where the 11 brothers attempt fratricide on Joseph. Instead, they sell him into slavery and lie to their father concerning Joseph's whereabouts. Then, in the Joseph narrative, we find Joseph tricking his brothers before revealing his true identity.
It is at this point, once Joseph knows his brothers have truly changed their ways, that he ends the cycle of deceit. Instead of continuing the dysfunction that had plagued his family for so long, he chooses a higher path. Instead of continued retribution and trickery, he chooses the path of forgiveness, love, and trust. This is a treasured lesson that we learn from our biblical ancestor Joseph. We, too, can break cycles of dysfunction in our own lives simply by choosing the higher path.
Neal Katz is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, TX. He was ordained from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is also a Jewish and folk music singer/songwriter.
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280