It is one thing to repent, to do “teshuvah”. It is another to forgive and be forgiven. Isn’t it? Does it matter that someone is truly repentant, if they remain unforgiven? Do you know anyone whose anger or feeling of hurt is so intense or consuming that granting forgiveness is unthinkable for them?
This week’s Parashat Vayigash provides the template for one of the most important tenets of our faith and what it means to be Jewish. It is from the story of Joseph and his brothers that our laws of repentance are derived and our philosophy of forgiveness is first manifest.
It is difficult to imagine deeds more despicable and hurtful than throwing one’s brother in a pit with venomous vipers, spiders and snakes, selling him into slavery and then causing your father to believe that one of his beloved children was dead. Whatever Joseph did to them, it is difficult to imagine that he deserved that. Yet, that is what Joseph’s brothers did. However poor Jacob’s parenting skills might have been, such cruelty to one’s parents is similarly difficult to justify.
If you were the victim of that torment and cruelty, how quickly could you forgive? Ever? Certainly not without some assurance that the perpetrator was worthy. What does it mean to be worthy of forgiveness?
Perhaps we should start by saying that Joseph’s attitude on being hurt and subjected to slavery and imprisonment actually makes the forgiveness possible. His philosophy was that everything happens for a reason and he found meaning in the brother’s actions as the way that God’s divine plan would unfold.
However, just because we have faith and can find meaning in whatever befalls us (whether we perceive it as good or bad) does not give the perpetrators a free pass. We still expect teshuvah from a wrongdoer. It is self-destructive to dwell on the pain that may have been inflicted on us. We certainly should not wait until the wrongdoer has repented. Looking for meaning and how we can benefit from it is part of our faith. It is when we are asked to forgive that we can apply the principals that the Rambam derived from Joseph’s plan.
True teshuvah is a three (3) step process of confession, remorse and self-discipline/impulse control. First, Joseph’s brothers acknowledge their wrongdoing. Second, Joseph hears that they are truly sorry and remorseful for their deeds. Third, when confronted with similar circumstances and the opportunity to commit the same offense, the brothers act selflessly to redeem Shimon (who Joseph held as surety) and to safeguard Benjamin.
What I find most interesting is that Joseph himself understood the inner torment and guilt that his brothers may have been feeling beforehand. So he created the opportunity for their repentance and forgiveness. By virtue of his test and his philosophy that the brothers’ actions were part of God’s plan, he gave them a tremendous gift. Not only did he forgive them, but he removed the shame. He showed them that what they did was wrong, but emphasized that had they not done it, God would have found some other way for the plan to unfold.
Our Sages tell us that this was actually the first example of one human being forgiving another in written history. I find that hard to believe, but who am I to argue with the Sages? The words “I forgive you” are not used, but the message could not be stated more clearly.
It is a new secular year and a tradition to make resolutions. Perhaps 2015 can be a year (if 5775 didn’t start out that way) when we can have faith that God is looking out for each of us, knowing that everything happens for a reason (whether we perceive it as good or ill) and that there is a plan. If we internalize that, we will be less likely to become angry or frustrated when things happen. It will also make it easier to forgive others. We can move on and past the ill. By forgiving others when the opportunities present themselves, we can help them move on as well. It is that combination of faith in God and God’s providence (hashgacha pratit) or at least the ability to “let be” or “let go” and the ability to forgive and not shame others that is Judaism at its core.
P.S. Our hiatus from formal Shabbat Morning Torah Study at Adat Shalom continues for the next couple weeks. Our regular Shabbat Tefilot continue as beautifully as always. I hope to see you there.