Wednesday, January 7, 2015
No Cause/Cause: A Drash on Forgiveness
In this week’s parsha, Va-Yiggash, Joseph forgives his brothers for throwing him into the pit and selling him into slavery. It is the first time in Torah that anybody forgives anybody. And, a scholar named David Konstan in The Origin of Forgiveness argues that this is the first instance of forgiveness in written history. Before that and until today, there has been the alternative culture of honor in which there is appeasement – my honor restored by means of my hurting or killing you, or you’re paying me off, or maybe convincing me of your innocence. But no such thing as that elusive experience of forgiveness.
So what is forgiveness? I had the most contact with the concept as a kid asking for it and then as a parent, doling it out. Basically the transaction consisted of saying “I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again” with a certain especially cute look and voice. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. Then in my 40’s, for the sake of my sanity, I had to ‘forgive’ my parents. That time it followed the formula best laid out by Reb Lily Tomlin, one of the great sages of our age: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” Now I don’t do much forgiving on a personal level. I live among good people. There is a guy who betrayed me at the deepest level nearly 30 years ago, and I won’t let go because thinking of him goads me – I might not be writing this without him. Mostly today its public figures, Dick Cheney, Officers Wilson and Panteleo, Pat Lynch, Rudy Giuliani. It’s a long list, and no, I don’t forgive. If it eats at my soul to be furious at them, so be it. So what is forgiveness? How does Joseph do it? What can I – we – learn from this very first instance.
Part of what makes this difficult that Joseph’s forgiveness has nothing to do with the ordeal he puts his brothers through. After all these weird twists, which we’ll get into, he simply tells them, ‘Its not your fault; you and I are just pawns, puppets in God’s cosmic agenda. You couldn’t help yourselves, God was acting, speaking, scheming through you. And it was all for the good.’ So really, he is saying that there is nothing to forgive.
If that’s the case, then why has Joseph put his brothers through this complicated twisting set of torments, this trial by deception? They arrive the first time from Canaan expecting a business transaction. They have plenty of money, but they need to buy grain in the midst of a terrible famine, and Egypt is the only place that has grain. They come before this great and awesome man, the Regent of the most powerful country on Earth, the equal of Pharaoh, who is a God to the Egyptians. But instead of making a deal, Joseph questions and accuses these brothers, and then toys with them in completely mysterious ways, ways that make them sense that he’s toying with them, make them very paranoid. Joseph accuses them of being spies, he throws them into prison – their own pit – he secretly puts the exact amount of silver they paid back in their bags; he tells them they can’t come back without brother Benjamin, even though they have said it would kill their father. And then, when they bring Benjamin back, this unsettling Regent mysteriously commands them to dine with him in the palace, favors Benjamin, and then entraps them by planting his silver cup in poor Benjamin’s pack. Its all weird and terrifying, and from the beginning the brothers sense it has something to do with their terrible sin against their brother.
But, as I said, all this has nothing to do with Joseph’s reasons for forgiving them. So what’s going on? Why has Joseph put them through all this? Why has he taken so long, risked so much before revealing himself?
Well I would submit that long before his brothers appear, Joseph yearns to reconnect with his father and his brothers. He names his elder son Manasseh, ‘He Who Makes Forget,’ as in ‘I have forgotten my hardships and all my father’s house.’ It’s a little like Amalek – you know, Remember to forget Amalek? This is like, ‘Remember to forget your roots.’ But here the stakes are different. He must forget, or at least not linger on the past, because in order to make himself into the all-powerful Regent of all Egypt, to do the job he has been thrust into, he has to keep his mind firmly fixed in the present. Wallowing in the past, whether sentimental or resentful, is dangerous.
But there another side of the name Menasseh as an ever present reminder to forget: the reminder side. According to Rashi, Joseph has this special knowledge of how to prevent stored grain from rotting, and the secret, as Rashi knew, because he was also a vintner, is to throw some dirt from the soil in which the stored grain was grown, in among the grain. Joseph knows this, and his son’s name reminds him to keep in himself a handful of the memory of his roots. Else, he knows, he is in danger of hollowing out completely into the soulless figure who will soon enslave everyone in Egypt.
So Joseph keeps his family in mind, as his father kept Joseph’s dreams in mind. And when the brothers appear before him, bowed down, exactly fulfilling his childhood dreams, he wants more than merely to reveal himself to them, tell them its all ok because it’s what God wants. He wants to connect. In whatever way possible he wants to plant himself back in his family. He wants to know if his father remembers him; even cares that he’s gone. He wants to know who these brothers are – will they still be full of rage at his dominion; are they a threat to his body or his power and position? But Joseph is a smooth operator, well schooled in keeping his own counsel, hiding his feelings. So he stalls at first, making himself strange to them, making threatening accusations, imprisoning them.
And during these interactions, he overhears the brothers speculating that all this weirdness is happening because ‘we are guilty concerning our brother.’ And hearing that, Joseph turns aside and weeps. For the first time since he was a child in Canaan, Joseph is himself, even if only to himself; the mask torn away for a moment. He knows now that his brothers acknowledge their guilt, if only to themselves.
And that, we are taught at Yom Kippur, is the first stage of tshuva, to admit, to acknowledge our wrongdoing.
But what next? Is their shame merely at being caught out, even so indirectly? Would they attack their shamer – shame is a dangerous emotion, especially in a culture built around honor. And most important, would they do it again? That’s the true measure of tshuvah. How to find out? They can’t possibly throw Joseph back into a pit. Well, there is this other brother, the one closest to Joseph, the one whom their father seems to favor now, now that Joseph is gone. Would they sell him down the river if they had the chance? So Joseph sets them up. He sells them grain, but not enough. Because he knows what they don’t: that we are only two years into the seven year famine. They will have to come back. And he tells them you can’t come back unless you bring this other brother, this one whom your father keeps home.
Sure enough they must come back, and, to Jacob’s great grief, they bring Benjamin. And as soon as Joseph sees his only full brother, humanity overpowers his power once more, and he runs from the room to weep again. Now it gets truly weird for the brothers, as Joseph gathers them to a fancy meal in the palace, and shows all kinds of favoritism to Benjamin, as if to tempt their resentment. Then finally he sends them off, only to have his steward hide his personal silver divining cup; and then chase after them, and accuse them of stealing it. They howl their innocence, but he finds the cup of course in Benjamin’s pack. The steward has said that the guilty one must return to Egypt as a slave.
This is the temptation. The brothers could abandon Benjamin to his pit. But they don’t. they come back with him, a sign of growth already. And when Joseph orders them to leave Benjamin and return to Canaan ‘in peace,’ Judah steps forward. Judah, whom Nicole Fix so beautifully revealed to be a man who has grown into maturity, compassion and leadership, Judah ‘draws close’ to Joseph. Draws close, Va-Yiggash, is a brazen act in itself, not just one of pleading or appeasement, but the midrash says it is also an act of aggression. And Joseph allows it. ‘Let’s see what he’s made of,’ thinks Joseph. ‘And while he talks, I will think of my next move.’
But Judah proceeds to make one of the great speeches in Torah, certainly my favorite. I can’t analyze it depth here – maybe next year if I’m lucky enough to get this assignment again. But suffice to say that first he confesses – ‘God has found out your servants’ crime.’ It is tacit or maybe only semi-conscious, but by speaking collectively of the brothers’ crime, he does confess, and that – confession -- is the second stage of tshuvah.
Then Judah retells the whole story of what has happened to him and his brothers since they came to Egypt. But he tells it from his viewpoint, deeply personally, expressing his utter anguish at the possibility that he might return without Benjamin, which would kill his old father. But as personal as it is, Judah knows intuitively or from clues, that Joseph is vulnerable on the issue of their father, of Jacob. 15 times he says ‘father’ -- my father, Benjamin’s father, our father. He reveals that Jacob thinks Joseph was ‘torn by a beast’ – Joseph couldn’t know that.
And, Judah reveals that he has promised himself as surety for Benjamin. And somehow this must carry great weight when he says it, because Judah has a deep and scourging history with sureties, going back the first time to Joseph’s coat, which he presents to Jacob and asks if he recognizes it; then, as Nicole told us, Judah gives his seal, staff and ring as surety to Tamar, and later she asks if he recognizes them; and now he stands surety for his brother – begging to descend into slavery in his stead.
And he ends by saying:
“How can I go up to my father, when the lad is not with me?
Then would I see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father!”
And, “Joseph could no long restrain himself.” He sends all the Egyptians from the room and weeps so loud and long that everyone in the palace hears -- imagine the brothers standing there! When he recovers enough to speak all he can say is “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” MY Father. Finally he can say it. Finally he can reveal himself knowing who his brothers are; that they have changed; that they did not take the bait. They stuck with their brother this time. They have fulfilled the third stage of tshuva; given the opportunity they didn’t do it again.
The brothers stand dumbfounded, gobsmacked, mouths agape, terrified, frozen, while Joseph weeps and weeps.
Finally Joseph recovers himself enough to speak. He beckons to them; they va-yiggash, draw near, and he tells them:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that G‑d sent me ahead of you…. But G‑d sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but G‑d.”
Joseph not only releases them from guilt, he brilliantly gives the brothers a story, one they can tell themselves and others – “It was not us who sent him here, but G‑d.” A story that lets them off the hook for what they did and also gives them reason not to resent him for what he has become, for the fulfillment of those dreams they hated him for before.
I think Joseph absolutely believes this mechanistic dehumanized theology. He says things like this over and over. But I also think that Joseph knows there are other levels of explanation, of tshuvah and forgiveness. He knows that if the return of his family is to mean anything, there must be a return to connection, to feeling, to a sense that he is part of the family he came from.
He has no desire to return and live among his family. Why would he? His life, his career, his greatness, are in Egypt, in this great role he plays. He has known that at least since he named his second son Ephraim, which refers to the irony of finding fulfillment in the land of his oppression, in Egypt. So he puts the family safely at a nice distance and carries on with his career.
So, to return to where I began, this is the first instance of forgiveness in written history. It can teach us a lot; not least that forgiveness is complex and difficult, rarely complete. It includes the elements we speak of at Yom Kippur: acceptance, confession and real change. We like to say ‘forgive and forget,’ but we see here that forgetting is neither necessary nor probably possible. Rather, we must strive to forgive even as we remember. This is a great story that presents an overwhelming human challenge.
Finally, a midrash: when Jacob dies, Joseph and his brothers, along with a huge entourage, carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan to bury it in the cave at Machpelah with Abraham and Sarah. And the midrash says that en route, they pass the very pit his brothers threw Joseph into. And Joseph stops the caravan; goes over to the pit, and says a blessing over it, thanking that pit, that scorpion filled emptiness, for all that it has given to him, to his family and to the story of our people. Shabbat Shalom.