“I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt. 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….so it’s not you who sent me here but the God who made me a father to Pharaoh, a ruler of the whole land of Egypt…” (Gen 45: 4-8)
Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. Don’t worry, you brothers who made my youth a living hell, who dumped me in a pit, and then sold me as a slave to a foreign land where I knew no one, didn’t know the language, and languished in jail. We’re good.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says that this long, dramatic parasha, when Joseph’s brothers plead for their brother Benjamin’s life, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it is a moment of true forgiveness, the first in the Torah. There was reconciliation before, as between Isaac and Esau, but, Sacks says, not true forgiveness. The difficult passages when Joseph sets his brothers up, frames them for theft, imprisons them, and more, he is setting the stage for the pre-requisite for forgiveness, their repentance. Only with true repentance can there be true forgiveness. The brothers had to acknowledge what they did, regret their actions, and change their behavior. Sacks contends that there is a difference between guilt and shame. Shame is attached to the person, but guilt is attached to the act. When you make that sort of distinction, true repentance is possible because the stain is on the behavior, not the individual.
My question, however, is “Would Joseph have been as forgiving if he hadn’t attained such success in Egypt?” If he had struggled for all those years, finally getting out of jail, barely scratching out a living, coming upon his brothers along with the others streaming into Pharaoh’s court, begging for food, be as forgiving? Does forgiveness depend on the status of the one who has been wronged?
It is much easier to forgive those who have wronged you when you have risen above what’s been done to you, than if you’re still languishing. It’s a lot easier in that case to keep blaming those who mistreated you; your horrible life is all their fault. Countless hours of therapy are based on the instinct to blame others for how others have treated us. When I was in third grade, no one came to my birthday party because one girl told everyone not to. I carried that hurt around for decades; it became my reason why it was easier for me to be friends with men, not women. It became my reason for not trusting women friends. It defined my social awkwardness. And when I finally ran into my torturer, I reminded her of what had happened. She had no memory of it at all. The hurt was real back then, but the burden I’d taken on was real, too. She didn’t ruin my life, as I’d told myself for ages. It was time to let go.
The true measure of forgiveness is the willingness of the injured party to separate the original and real pain from the stories and “truths” built up around them. Some injuries are life-long and their scars are real and life-long, too. But so many others are based on scarred-habits. The hate-muscle has gotten more exercise, and the forgiveness-muscle is weak. Maybe Joseph is feeling the pain of all the lost years with his father. Maybe that pain is greater than the satisfaction of having risen to such a high place in Egypt. If so, he’s showing us that forgiveness is just as profound and curative, no matter how good life looks like from the outside.