A Story of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

The story of Joseph is the story of heroism, forgiveness, and redemption. His story is not about victimization and defeat. Joseph is a dreamer, a visionary, a wise man, and no amount of evil intent has stifled that within him. His dreams are premonitions and become reality. He becomes a ruler of the land and navigates through a seven-year famine. And he uses his position of power not for revenge or vengeance but rather to enact lifesaving agricultural reforms that save Egypt.

He is also a powerful teacher of that elusive, complicated, and transformative force we call forgiveness. Joseph, though victimized, is not a victim. Though estranged from his family, he never forgets his roots. Though ridiculed for his gifts, he continues to nurture his unique abilities. Joseph becomes the hero of his own life, and thereby the hero of our people.

Forgiveness is a complex process. We are never obligated to condone bad behavior. When an act or a word or a manipulation or an offense comes our way, we are not compelled to say, that's okay, never mind. Forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation. Sometimes when a relationship is difficult, hostile, not supportive, toxic, we forgive and get out of the way -- not because our offender deserves it but because we do. Nor do we forgive and forget.

Memory goes to the very foundation of our tradition. When we want to pay the highest honor to a person who has died, we say, may her memory be for a blessing. When we remember a person who has committed atrocities, we say may his memory be blotted out. The evil and offensive ways of the world are remembered so that we may learn to do better, that we may hold the victims in a loving space in our hearts, that we may be wiser in identifying when evil begins to lurk in our midst. No, we do not forget.

Yet despite the complexities, intricacies, and difficulties and lingering anger, it is best to find our way to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves. We begin to release the anger and resentment that take up so much space in the territory of our spirit. With forgiveness we begin the long process of healing. Whenever possible and appropriate it is better to live with softness than harshness, to let go rather than clench, and to open our hearts to the beauty in this world.

This is what Joseph choses. It is the famine that brings his brothers to Joseph's court in Egypt. But it is forgiveness that brings the hearts of the brothers together. In an elaborate story of intrigue and disguise, Joseph tests his brothers. They do not recognize him. And then he reveals his identity in a cathartic reckoning, which opens the path to reconciliation.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So, there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace (Gen 45:1-2).

So many of us have uttered this primal cry into the darkness of our night. We pray to be heard, to be seen, to be understood. Joseph does not stifle his anguish. The only path toward forgiveness and reconciliation is straight through the lingering pain that has settled in his heart. And then Joseph asks a remarkable question: Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" (Gen 45:3). At face value, this question is rhetorical, for he knows that his father Jacob is still living. Perhaps he is asking if the link that once bound us together as brothers is still alive. Is the connection to our past and ultimately our Jewish destiny still alive? Has everything been lost due to the sins of the past, or is reconciliation possible? Ha'od avi chai, does my father live?

The path towards forgiveness and reconciliation is difficult. The twists and turns, the hurt, and the tragedy are all part of our unfolding. Joseph is aware that what transpired is destiny working its way through his personal story. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance (Gen 45:5-7).

Extraordinary deliverance. Forgiveness requires a decision to live with less hurt, less resentment, and more love -- because we all strive to live a gentler life.

Perpetual Crossings

I walk softly on the damp wooded path.
Mostly I look down
and see the ground beneath my feet is
soft earth, gentle moss,
and, of course, fallen leaves, which,
like angels, have floated to earth
forming a gently lit path in the woods.

And for every chasm along the way,
for every fast-moving stream or deeply cut valley,
a bridge appears.
It seems that there is always
a way across,
a way to get to the other side of fear, of sadness, of
disappointment.
There is always a way.

Maybe goodness is the bridge, or beauty is the bridge.
Love is the bridge.

Forgiveness is the bridge.

Of this I am sure:
the path is eternal-it is our life and the length of our days.

And the bridge is eternal-
there are many ways to cross what seems impossible.
Stones in the river, ropes suspended, planks of wood,
arches of steel like love, patience, acceptance
and forgiveness.

Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice , by Rabbi Karyn Kedar (CCAR Press)