By David Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning
Joseph and the Power of Forgiveness
To think that in the very weeks we read of Joseph’s forgiveness of, and reconciliation with his family, we also mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela is nothing less than remarkable.
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you … God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve [it] for you for a great deliverance.”
Joseph’s brothers had thrown him down a pit and sold him into slavery yet, Joseph confronts his brothers and ultimately utters words of kindness. Rather than imprisoning his brothers, Joseph’s forgiveness allows the reconciliation with his whole family that we read about this week. One can ask, would this even have been possible if not for the way Joseph welcomed his brothers initially and reassured them later on? In the reconciliation narrative which spans these two weeks, even though he could be enraged and vindictive, Joseph is mostly concerned with whether he would get to see his Father and closest brother Benjamin ever again. He chose love over anger, and in so doing was able to be a part of his beloved father’s last days.
And so this week we read the well-known passages of Jacobs death bed. We read of his travels coming to Egypt to reunite with his favorite son Joseph. We hear his last words for all his sons and his blessings for his long lost son Joseph – and his children. The story includes the burial site of Rachel – the place where Jacob also wishes to be buried. We also learn that Jacob and Joseph, both men who walked with God through their dreams and visions, were so well respected that the elders of Egypt turned out to mourn Jacob’s death. This is a story of holding family and love higher than anger. This is a story of reconciliation. This is a story of the true power of forgiveness.
From the moment Joseph sees his brothers again, he does little of what one would expect for someone who has overcome their act of sibling jealousy and risen to such power in the land where they now seek aid and assistance. Even after the death of Jacob, Joseph reassures his brothers by repeating his reasons for letting bygones be bygones (Vayechi 50:19-20)
“Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present – to keep a great populace alive.”
We may be familiar with the story, and in hindsight, we can see the plan Joseph was talking about. Without his sale into slavery, he does not rise to power in Egypt. Without his brothers’ deceit, Joseph does not get access to Pharaoh to share his dreams about famine. And without the insight that God gave him, Joseph does not convince Pharaoh to store grain in the seven years of plenty so they would not starve in the seven years of famine.
We also know the story of our redemption from slavery in Egypt that would be a cornerstone of our Jewish tradition. Without Joseph’s suffering the Hebrew nation does not come of age in Egypt or get saved from the famine.
Slavery and bondage were Joseph’s suffering on the way to redemption just as slavery and bondage were the trials and tribulations of the ancient Hebrews. And in making way for this path to continue, Joseph actually leads the sons and daughters of Israel to find a leader and a great teacher in Moshe, a covenant at Sinai, and a homeland in Israel. Was Joseph also seeing all of this? Was this why he could be so humble and forgiving in the face of those who wronged him? We can only surmise. But, we can ask those similar questions of a person in our own time who experienced his own bondage on the road to being a symbol of redemption for an entire country.
This Sunday in our religious school, we held a short program to highlight the life of Nelson Mandela and to show these connections to Jewish tradition and liturgy. Just as we are commanded to pursue Justice (Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof) so too did Nelson Mandela see it as his mission to pursue justice and to create a better society. Just as we believe that all people are created in the image of God and should be treated accordingly (B’Tzelem Elohim), Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. sought the same thing for the people they were leading. And just as Moses was a leader who noticed the suffering of others and stood up to call for call for an end to their oppression – despite what it would mean for his future – so too did people like Mandela and King sacrifice to overcome the oppression they witnessed in their society.
Nelson Mandela’s ability to believe so strongly in his ideas of justice and the long-term goal of a free and just South Africa was so strong that he was willing to let go of any desire for vengeance or revenge. He served as a model for his people to show that a just society could best be achieved with kindness, love, humility, and respect. Similarly, Joseph was given a confidence throughout his captivity and exile that there was a larger part for him to play. Both men let this larger role for the salvation of their people guide them in all that they did. Their selfless commitment to their cause and their God allowed both men to lay their anger aside and lead their people toward liberation and a much brighter future than either the Hebrews or black South Africans would have had without them.