December 22, 2023
As 2023 winds down, tis’ the season for traveling and family reunions, which happen to be the central elements in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash, the penultimate parsha in the book of Genesis. The parsha picks up with Joseph’s first encounter with his brothers in over 20 years… Last they saw one another, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and told their father he was killed by wild beasts! Now, the brothers arrive in Egypt to find relief from the famine plaguing the entire region (from which Egypt was spared, thanks to Joseph’s prophetic interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams earlier!). Knowing his brothers will not recognize him, Joseph initially plays a pretty dirty trick: he plants a goblet on the youngest brother, Benjamin, and as the brothers turn to leave, “catches” the thief and declares that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as a slave. The brothers beg for mercy, and recount their brother Joseph’s “death”… Upon hearing of his own demise, Joseph demands to be left alone with his brothers and he reveals his identity. They then have a very teary reunion, as biblical text recounts:
“(2) [Joseph’s] sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (3) Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, they were dumfounded… (4) Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. (5) Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me back then; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”
Then the brothers head back to Canaan to fetch Jacob and the rest of the family, and everyone relocates to Egypt!
We might wonder how Joseph was able to so quickly drop the facade, see the bigger picture and forgive his brothers for what they did to him. The biblical authors and the rabbis knew that, as I often say, “hurt people hurt people” and that Joseph’s ability to forgive was not the norm… When we think about forgiveness, the High Holidays rituals involving teshuva may come to mind, but this intra- and interpersonal work is possible, and some may say required on a day to day basis. According to the Mishneh Torah (one of the most comprehensive and influential works of Jewish law, composed in Egypt circa 1178 CE), “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not make amends; instead, a person should be easily appeased and slowly angered. And at the moment when the sinner asks for forgiveness – forgive with a whole heart and a desirous soul. And even if they pained you and sinned against you many times, you should not take revenge or hold a grudge – that is the way of the Children of Israel and – לִבָּם הַנָּכוֹן – (add transliteration) their correct or upright or upstanding hearts.”
Similarly, German-Jewish social psychologist and humanistic philosopher, Erich Fromm, who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the US and wrote “The Art of Loving” in 1956, draws on the biblical notion of “loving our neighbor as ourselves” in order to step into a place of forgiveness. He writes: “If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue—and not a vice—to love myself, since I am a human being too. […] respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparably connected with the love for any other being.”
As Fromm points out, loving ourselves is necessary in order to be able to love others, and to meet them lovingly – with forgiveness and compassion.
It is this kind of love and openness that Joseph demonstrates with his brothers, and is a deeply vulnerable act.
Vulnerability, like forgiveness, is often (I think) interpreted as weakness in our culture, but thank God, the rabbis as well as modern sages like Brene Brown, are here to remind us that they are actually incredible strengths, enabling us to build fulfilling relationships and lives. In her viral TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, Brown discusses her research on resilience, finding, seemingly paradoxically, that the most resilient people have the courage to be vulnerable, “to be imperfect […to have] the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they [have] connection, and – this was the hard part – as a result of authenticity,” which Brown defines as a willingness to “let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were,” which, she concludes is necessary in order to create meaningful, sustainable connections with others.
Without knowing it or meaning to, I believe that Joseph’s actions in this weeks’ parsha set a prime example, and lay the foundation for thinkers like Eric Fromm and Brene Brown. Joseph demonstrates that being vulnerable, approaching the people who hurt him most with openness and empathy, releasing his hurt and being willing to forgive, create the opportunity for a loving connection, and make possible an incredible tikkun, a deeply necessary repair in his very fractured family, ultimately helping the Israelites survive the famine and live and thrive.
I’ll close with a blessing: May Joseph serve as a reminder for all of us, especially at this moment, when many are in the throes of seasonal woes, but also as many are setting New Year’s resolutions and intentions, that instead of holding onto hurt, that we might let it go, or just loosen our grip on it, taking steps toward self-love, forgiveness and reconciliation; that we may have the courage to be vulnerable and to be open to whatever comes our way in 2024.
Rabbi Jenn Queen