"I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt; and now, don't be troubled, don't be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Genesis 45:4-5). I love this moment! With just two verses, Joseph is able to say so much. Primarily it turns on the two verbs he uses to describe the same event.
The word m'char'tem, "you sold [plural]," describes the first action. It's true, the brothers did sell him. Possibly they did it as a kindness, since the alternative they were considering was murder; but even so they didn't do it purposely for his benefit. When he says to them, "don't be chagrined because you sold me," he holds them accountable for what they did by naming it clearly. There is power in naming the crime that was committed against you. He calls them out and says "You did this to me" but at the same time he tells them not to feel bad about it.
If we heard only this first part, we might not believe Joseph really means that they shouldn't feel bad. If this was all he said, we might think in fact that he wants them to be very chagrined, to feel guilty, and to beg for his forgiveness. If we heard only this part, we might expect that Joseph is preparing to make his brothers suffer quite a bit. But instead, he shows with his next words that he really means it. He really doesn't want them to feel guilt.
We understand this when he changes the word used to describe the situation. Instead ofm'char'tem, Joseph uses the word sh'lachani, "[God] sent me," and he makes God the responsible party, rather than his brothers. It wasn't his brothers selling him, it was God sending him. It wasn't their hatred and anger that was responsible for Joseph's experiences and current situation; it was God making sure that Joseph was in the right place to save life.
This is very powerful for me. To look at the brothers who had been cruel to him and had betrayed him, and to see God functioning for good in their actions, I think is a special kind of forgiveness. Joseph tested them to see if they would desert Benjamin the way they had deserted him, and he found they were different with Benjamin. He saw that they could love and care for a son of Rachel and that they were considerate of their father's needs. He is then able to relieve them of any guilt they might have on his account.
But Abravanel seems not to be as overwhelmed by these statements as I am. He says, "How come Joseph to say: "So it was not you who sent me here but God?" Surely they deliberately and knowingly sold him to harm him. The fact that by a fluke the sale turned out well, did not mitigate their offence. A person is not judged by the accidental results of his deeds but by his intent. The accidental results are irrelevant to the moral dimension" (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.], p. 499).
He has a good point. If we consciously and actively do harm to another, but instead our actions lead to good, to what are we held accountable: the good that was actually done or the evil we intended? I think of Balaam, who intended to curse the Israelites, but instead blessed us with the words Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov mishk'notecha Yisrael, "Howfair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). Those words are a daily part of Jewish religious life, we begin each morning's blessings singing them. Though the intention was to curse instead we received blessing, which continues to this day. Is Balaam then accountable for the intention or the actual act? Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a tells us that when Balaam went back "to his place," (Numbers 24:25) he was returning to hell and he would have no place in the world to come as will righteous people. But then Balaam wasn't an Israelite, he wasn't our ancestor, and the Rabbis felt no need to forgive him of his intentions, but Jacob's brothers are another matter entirely.
Perhaps they can be forgiven, not simply because their actions turned out to be better than their intentions, but because they have done t'shuvah. They have seen the devastation the loss of Joseph had on their father. And when faced again with saving themselves at the cost of a child of Rachel, this time they (Judah especially) were prepared to take his place and ensure that Benjamin returned to Jacob. Perhaps Joseph could fully forgive them because it was clear that they would not behave the same way again. He was changed from this experience and so were they. This story teaches us so much about what t'shuvah can really look like, and what forgiveness can really look like.
There is something else here as well. We aren't always (or ever) able to see and understand the full implications of our actions when they occur. It is only in hindsight that these things are ever remotely clear. Mary Doria Russell writes in her novel Children of God (New York: Random House, 1998], p. 428):
"There's a passage in Exodus-God tells Moses, 'No one can see My face, but I will protect you with My hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove My hand and you will see My back,' Remember that?"
Emilio nodded, listening.
"Well, I always thought that was a physical metaphor," John said, "but, you know-I wonder now if it isn't really about time? Maybe that was God's way of telling us that we can never know His intentions, but as time goes on. . . we'll understand. We'll see where He was: we'll see His back."
We cannot truly judge actions until we look back to understand their implications. Sometimes when we look back we will see not only goodness that came from evil intentions, but we might even see God's hand at work. Sometimes we may be able even to forgive when we look back and understand that we and the offender have changed.
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.