In Vayechi, the last portion of Genesis, the Torah returns to the topic of forgiveness. Seventeen years ago, Joseph tested his brothers and found they had changed. He then revealed himself to them and forgave them for being responsible for his being sold into Egypt and enslaved. The Talmud quotes Joseph, “I have no malice against you” [Megillah 16b]. What more, then, is there to say?
We know that any repetition in the Torah may contain a deeper meaning. After the death of Jacob, the brothers fabricate a story. They say that Jacob asked Joseph to forgive the brothers for their near-murderous deed. They throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, willing to become his slaves. The Torah may be telling us at the outset that forgiveness is an ongoing process containing many levels. We know that it is easier to forgive something from the past, after the pain of being hurt has lessened, than to forgive a fresh affront in the present. The brothers’ new lie shows Joseph that the brothers may not, in fact, have fully changed. They are still lying, still deceptive. As the Midrash comments, “Yet when did [Jacob] command thus? We do not find that he did so” [Gen. Rabba 100:8].
Shabbat Candles: 4:19 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:23 p.m.
Joseph’s reaction to their fear and lying is a glimpse into a deeper level of forgiveness. Joseph says to them, “Fear not, for am I instead of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” [Gen. 50:19-20]. In the seventeen years since forgiving his brothers, Joseph learned to live a deep truth: that it was God who had the brothers teach Joseph, elevating him to a deeper capacity to forgive. The Sfat Emet quotes Isaiah: “Everyone that is called by My name, and whom I created for My glory, I formed him, yes, I made him” [Isaiah 43:7]. Joseph realized the great secret of this world: that God has created people as they are so that we can learn and grow. They exist for our growth and development just as we exist for theirs, to call forth a greater depth of love from us. That knowledge relieves us of our need to blame others for being who they are.
It was clear to Joseph that God made his brothers the way they were for the higher purpose of saving the vast multitude of the Egyptian nation, as well as for their own salvation. Joseph was also able to live out of the reality which Isaiah taught: that God is the Judge [Is. 33:22]. We are not meant to exact punishment against each other for supposed crimes, but to bring the Divine Presence into the world through our forgiveness and kindness. The classic teaching in Judaism, based on the “Bedtime Shema,” is that as we forgive, so are we forgiven.
There is enough rigor in the world. Our task is to bring compassion and caring to each other. We function as spiritual sandpaper for each other. By rubbing up against others we shine up our souls. Just as there is unconditional love, in this portion Joseph teaches us unconditional forgiveness. Joseph does not require perfection from his brothers. He accepts them just as they are, rather than as he might like them to be. Joseph knows that it is his mitzvah to pardon them.
This year, it is fitting that the end of the Book of Genesis comes soon after Chanukah, a time of family gatherings; at the end of the secular new year, a time of resolutions. Genesis ends not only with unconditional forgiveness, but also with peace. The Midrash famously comments, “Great is peace since all other blessings are included in it” [Vayikra Rabbah 9].
In order to live in a peaceful world, we have to forgive each other. To do so takes commitment, effort and acceptance. Joseph teaches us that this deeper level of forgiveness is possible. The rest is up to us.
Rabbi Jill Hausman is both rabbi and cantor at The Actors’ Temple in the Theater District.