Vayigash: Forgiveness Grows

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Brrrr. . . .it’s cold in the Hudson Valley, so reading about Yosef and his brothers in the land of Egypt is about the only sunshine and warmth we’re likely to get this week!

Vayigash literally means “he drew close,” and this is the theme of the portion on many levels: Yehudah may have drawn physically close to Yosef when he pleads on behalf of Binyamin, but Yosef, in turn, reveals himself to his brothers and draws them close to him emotionally. After the revelation of Yosef’s true identity (check out Rashi for a risque midrash about how Yosef proved he was a Hebrew), Yosef tells the brothers not to worry about that whole “throwing him in the pit” episode from years back, for it was God’s way of sending him to Egypt to be able to care for the whole family. Then, Yosef sends the brothers back to the land of Israel to get their father and bring the whole family down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection:

“As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, ‘Do not be quarrelsome on the way.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

Well- that’s interesting. Why would Yosef assume the brothers would be quarrelsome along the way? They’d just been told that their greatest crime was forgiven and their whole family would be saved in the famine!

Our aforementioned friend Rashi offers no less than three answers to this question, two of which we are going to leave for another day (but which you can find here.) Rashi says the simple answer is that because the brothers were so ashamed of what they had done to Yosef years earlier, they would argue along the way about who was really responsible, pointing the finger at one another and saying “because of you he was sold, you spoke badly of him and caused us to hate him.”

What makes this a subtle and perceptive interpretation is the implication that the brothers will feel ashamed and blame each other not because they’re in trouble, but after Yosef has spoken kindly to them and, as above, drawn them close to him and told them not to worry anymore. (Cf. 45:5-6) That is, being forgiven does not end the process of moral introspection but may actually evoke more of it, precisely because not worrying about retribution means that the offending party need fear no judge but himself.

The brothers were not only shocked to find out that their long-sold brother was the Prime Minister of Egypt; they were also shocked that his first words were ones of reconciliation. I can only imagine that after years of denying the pangs of conscience, guilt would turn on itself in anger and blame among themselves once the brothers experienced Yosef’s magnanimity. Hence- Yosef’s acute awareness that the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is not over with one act, but will play out over years, even decades, coming up again after their father dies some 17 years later.

We learn from this that peace is not cheap, but requires attention and care, conversation and conscience, honesty and courage, from all parties. Forgiveness doesn’t happen once and it’s over; it is something that grows with effort and love.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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