Friday, December 26, 2014

Parsha Vayigash: Teshuvah and Forgiveness as Signs of Emotional Maturity

Although some people never grow up, many of us have this uncanny ability to handle situations more tactfully than we would have when we were younger. We find this to be the case with Joseph and his brothers in this week's Torah portion. We're at the point in the story where Judah pleads on behalf of his brother, Benjamin. Afterwards, Joseph ordered everyone except the brothers to leave the room, and Joseph reveals his true identity (Genesis 45:1). Instead of throwing the book at the brothers or exacting revenge, Joseph told his brothers not to grieve because G-d had "sent Joseph before them to preserve life (Genesis 45:5)."

Joseph's reaction was remarkable. Why? Joseph's brothers threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery. Before ascending to power, Joseph had done some hard time in prison. Joseph had been put through the ringer. He had every right to be angry, and what's more is that he could have treated his brothers either with the same treatment because in ancient times, might was right. What we see is not a vengeful Joseph, but a Joseph who was longing to reunite with his family. Not only do his actions speak to this desire, but so do his words. In Genesis 45:5, Joseph said "כי למחיה שלחני אלהים לפניכם" (G-d sent me before you to preserve life). There's one problem: it wasn't G-d that sold Joseph into slavery and cause all the subsequent events that led up to that moment. It was his brothers who sold him into slavery. The text clearly says so. So why would Joseph attribute these events to G-d? Even though Joseph's dream/prophecy was correct (Genesis 37), I would postulate that Joseph cared more about family than being right or having prophetic powers. Not only did he miss his family, but he has realized the importance of G-d in his life. Joseph had a hard-knock life, and if it taught him anything, it's that an unfettered ego does not make for a fulfilling life. Rather than being the immature child who rubbed his conceit in his brothers' faces, he has figured out the importance of forgiveness as the beginning of healing his years of angst and frustration, which are illustrated by the loud cry he let out after revealing his identity (Genesis 45:2).

Why was he so overwhelmed with emotion? Why couldn't he keep up the charade anymore? Because if we read the text closely enough, Judah actually went through the stages of the teshuvah process. The brothers admitted his error (Genesis 42:21-23), they confessed and admitted collective responsibility (Genesis 44:16), and showed behavioral change by being willing to become Joseph's slaves (ibid.). This essentially is the teshvuah process (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2). Joseph didn't hand out forgiveness for free. He realized that his brothers were truly repentant because they had shown true changes in their mentality and behavior, and for that, he was able to let them back in his lives. No more grudges. No more living in the past. Joseph was able to live in the present, feel at peace, and share that peace with his loved ones. The Joseph story is not only the first instance of forgiveness in recorded history, but also a wonderful example of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation that can guide us in the relations we have in our life.

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