Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is Joseph's Forgivesness Genuine? Is Ours? / Vayechi

Today – December 16 – is Reconciliation Day, a public holiday in South Africa. Reconciliation has been on the South African calendar since 1994, as the system of apartheid was dismantled, in the hope of stimulating reconciliation between Black South Africans and Afrikaners, and fostering national unity.

Reconciliation is needed on the national level, but even more often on the individual level.

Of the many factors that contribute to quality of life, our relationships with other people rank high on the list. Our relatives, friends, business associates, neighbors, and even casual acquaintances can make for a great day or a disastrous day, and influence us to have a positive outlook on the future or a dismal perspective toward life. Perhaps we would not wish others to have such power and influence in our lives, but reality is reality.

Relationships of substance are not always steady state. They wax and wane. And sometimes there is a serious rupture. In the rarified air of movies and literature, long-time rivals and enemies can reconcile so completely that their bond of love and loyalty is stronger after the reconciliation than before the rupture. Does that happen in the real world of our lives? Or do we drag around resentments, distrust, and a lingering desire for revenge?

Joseph’s brothers know they are safe so long as their father Jacob is alive. Once he dies, however, they panic. What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him? (Genesis 50:15) So the brothers send a message to Joseph reminding him that their father Jacob’s most fervent wish had been that Joseph not extract revenge, but rather forgive his brothers. They also offer to become Joseph’s slaves.
But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And fear not. I will sustain you and your children” (Genesis 50: 19-21).
Joseph’s pious response about God’s divine providence in their lives seems to undercut by his presumably generous commitment to support them. Is this the ultimate fulfillment of those early dreams, in which he had complete authority over them? Or is this indeed Joseph’s revenge?

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Beitzah 32, we find this teaching:
R. Natan ben Abba also said in the name of Rav: If someone is dependent upon another’s table, the world looks dark to him, for it says, He wanders about for food -- where is it? – he realizes that the day of darkness is ready, at hand (Job 15:23). The Rabbis taught: one of three whose life is no life is a person who is dependent upon another for his meals.
Is Joseph supporting his brothers lovingly, or is he keeping his brothers dependent upon him in order to exact the ultimate revenge? Joseph’s forgiveness seems incomplete. As difficult as this is for the brothers – and we cannot doubt that dependence upon Joseph must have been frightening – what does this do to Joseph’s soul? If Joseph continues to punish his brothers, is he not also punishing himself by harboring negative sentiments – resentment, distrust, rivalry – that will consume his energies and ultimately his soul, all in the guise of kindness and generosity?

Are we the same way? How do we break the negative bond and leave room for a genuine positive connection to replace it? We must come to the realization that controlling others and feeding our resentments limits us and makes us smaller. Our spiritual goal as Jews – indeed as humans – is to grow beyond negativity so that our “generosity” is genuine, our “love” is pure, and our “protection” of others is not controlling. The answer lies with us.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa practiced restorative, or reparative, justice to save South African from disintegration and violence in the wake of the abolition of apartheid. Horrific abuses of human rights were acknowledged, but amnesty was granted those who admitted their crimes. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims and offenders to have their stories heard, to forgive and be forgiven, with the goal in mind to put violence, injustice, hatred, and revenge behind, and foster reconciliation.

This stands in stark contrast to the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, whose purpose was to exact justice and punish those who had perpetrated genocide. There is a place for both in our world and in our lives.

In our Criminal Justice system, we commonly ask: What laws were broken? Who broke these laws? What punishment is appropriate? In the system of Restorative (or reparative) justice, one asks: Who has been injured? What do they need? Who is obligated to provide what is needed to repair the injuries? Our Torah employs both systems: sometimes punishment is prescribed, and often restoration is prescribed, and sometimes a combination of the two.

It is for us to ponder long and hard which is most appropriate in our personal lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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