Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Parashat Vayigash - Moving On

By Jessica Kerner
Verse Per Verse

Forgiveness. The word forgiveness has always been a difficult word for me to truly understand. While I understand the concept of it, the act of actually forgiving someone is tough for me to do. Now, I'm not talking about someone bumping into me on the street, saying sorry and then I forgive them. What I am talking about are the kind of acts that people commit although they know their actions will greatly hurt someone. Those are the kinds of behaviors that I find very tricky to forgive. Perhaps it's the fact that I am a stubborn Taurus, but maybe it's just natural. If you take a dive into history you will see that forgiveness has always been a complicated task.

Parshat Vayigash, the story of Joseph revealing himself to Judah and his brothers, finally seeing his father Israel again, and bringing them all to Egypt to live, is usually associated with forgiveness. After all, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and now he tells them not to be pained because of what they did. Joseph says to his brethren, "It was not you that sent me here but God." After Joseph reveals himself to his brothers they do not speak. In fact it is not until after Joseph weeps on his brother's necks and they weep on his neck that the brothers even speak to Joseph. Joseph's father, Israel (formerly known as Jacob), speaks right away when he learns that Joseph is alive and upon seeing him. What does the silence of the brothers mean? Are they so sorry that they cannot even speak? Or are they so scared of being caught that they do not want to criminalize themselves by opening their mouths? Who knows why they did not speak? But my biggest issue with the Parshat Vayigash is that although many people assume that the brothers all forgave each other, there is no mention of the word forgiveness in any of the English translations that I read. The word "apology" does not even appear once in this text. So why do people take a theme of forgiveness out of this story?

I guess the answer is because people see what they want to see. They want Joseph and his brothers to forgive each other so, guess what, they do! Look, you may call me a cynical, stubborn, a “B-word,” but I am not sure if it's really possible to truly forgive someone for selling you into slavery. Nor do I get out of the story that Joseph's brothers were truly sorry for what they had done. The portion says they wept on each other's necks. While this is a highlight of Parshat Vayigash, it does not necessarily mean what most people would assume.

In my opinion the brothers are crying for all different reasons. Perhaps Judah is crying because he knew they shouldn't have sold him into slavery. Perhaps another brother is crying because he is jealous of Joseph's high position. Maybe one brother is weeping because he thinks Joseph is tricking him and will get him into trouble. Finally, why don't we know if any of the brothers ever say the words "I am sorry Joseph, I am sorry." How nice would it be for Joseph to hear that? I know if I were Joseph in that moment I would be saying to myself that hearing a little apology from my siblings might make me feel a little better. After all, Joseph just pardoned them for committing a great sin against him. The least he deserves is an "I'm sorry." By the way, Joseph never says "I forgive you" nor does he say "it is okay." He tells them to not be upset because it was God who sent him there and not them, which doesn't necessarily mean that he forgives them. Just because you accept that something was God's will does not mean that you have forgiveness in your heart. Perhaps Joseph merely accepted what happened and moved on.

It is too bad that we never will know for sure what the exact words were that Joseph and his brothers spoke after weeping on each other's necks. Either way, whether they apologized or not, and whether or not Joseph told them he forgave their actions, they moved on. And to me this is the point of the story; that they are family and they moved on and came together. My mother used to tell me that people can forgive but will never forget. In my opinion, Joseph never forgot what his brothers did to him, and maybe it is possible that he never really forgave them either. But he did know in his heart that things happen for a reason and that this was part of God's plan. Joseph brought his father and all seventy members of his family to live amongst the richest land in Egypt and moved on from there.

I think it is important to note the moving on of the family. In modern times, families have similar issues. Parents divorce, commit adultery, and walk out on each other. Children abandon their parent's ideals, neglect to stay in touch and sometimes say hurtful things. However, although one may never really forgive each other for these actions, it is important to move on. In many cases I think it is important to remember that when dealing with family, even if you cannot find it in your heart to forgive, you must find the strength to move on. After all, life is short and holding grudges will only make it hard. Moving on, never forgetting, and being careful is, in my opinion, the first step on the path to forgiveness.

If you want to see an example of a modern day Joseph go to:
Never is a boy who was sold into slavery for $20 dollars by his own father. Yes, today, in this day and age, people are sold into slavery. Never is from Ghana . After being rescued from abusive captivity and forced labor, he said he believes that his father did not truly know the difficulty that he would go through as a slave. Since being reunited with his family, Never has now learned to speak English and is continuing his education so that he can one day be a great leader. He has since helped to rescue other children from slavery in the same region. Never is moving on.


  1. Shoher reads tzavar as shoulders rather than necks here
    Don't forget it's the plural

  2. this is lovely Jessica - and thanks for the poignant modern remindr of the Jospehs among us. How ironic that this boy's name is NEVER...
    in the storahtelling i led today in Jerusalem I asked people to imagine what the brothers were saying at that scene,and people came up with great stuff - one of them - was Jospeh asking for forgiveness for being such a brat, adn for never letting them know he was ok... we all agreed that sometimes the torah leaves it blank for a reason..

  3. Jessica,

    This is just beautiful. It's so funny to me that Andrew Lloyd Webber's interpretation has been so formative to my understanding of this story that actually paying attention to the simple meaning becomes difficult. I absolutely assumed that Joseph forgave his brothers. But actually, that does not happen until NEXT week's Torah portion, when the brothers TRICK Joseph into forgiving them. Here, the brothers do use the Hebrew word "Sah/forgive". And even this is ambiguous, because Joseph does not say, "Yes, I forgive you." Instead, he weeps (again) and says, "Fear not, for am I not in the place of God." Is that forgiveness?

    So interesting. Thank you!!!

  4. Jessica,

    This is so interesting. Thank you so much! It's so funny to me: I totally have Andrew Lloyd Webber's interpretation of this story ingrained in my head and I just assumed that, of course Joseph forgave his brother! The song told me so. It's so hard to let go of previous understandings and beliefs, and actually pay attention to the simple meaning of the text when rereading.

    And it's actually a vital plot-point that the brothers do not ask forgiveness and that Joseph does not explicitly give it. In NEXT week's portion, Jacob has died and the brothers are afraid that now Joseph will take vengeance upon them, because (at the very least) they do not feel that they have been forgiven. So they actually try to trick Joseph into forgiving them! They say that, on his deathbed, their father's last wish was for Joseph to forgive his brothers for their past transgressions. (The Hebrew word "Sah/forgive" is actually used in Genesis 50:17).

    But none of the brothers actually do say, "I am sorry" and, once again, Joseph does not explicitly forgive them either. Instead, he just weeps (again) and says, "Fear not; for am I not in the place of God?" What does that mean?

    Maybe he just knew better than Cain, that he cannot hide from God. He cannot kill or harm his brothers because that is not a thing to do in God's presence, which I believe he understood to be everywhere.