Letting Them Off the Hook Too Fast

The Joseph narrative comes to a climax in this week’s Torah portion, with Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, meeting his father after an absence of many years, and reconciling with his family. What’s remarkable about the story is Joseph’s capacity for forgiveness. We might think that someone who has been victimized in the past, even if he experiences spectacular success afterward, would still bear a grudge toward those who hurt him. His brothers certainly think he might, and even lie to Joseph when they later tell him that their father Jacob left instructions for Joseph to forgive the hurt they caused him and refrain from any acts of revenge. Each of us has likely been the victim of someone else’s hurtful act, and each of us, like Joseph, has likely faced the choice between revenge and forgiveness.

But Joseph seems to be able to rise above the need for revenge. He says to his brothers,

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7-8)

Joseph clearly believes that being thrown into a pit by his brothers and being sold into slavery was not an evil act on their part, but part of a grand Divine plan. That he believes such a thing is an enormous act of faith. He sees himself as a pawn in a great cosmic chess game being played by God. We, who know how the story develops, can understand Joseph’s enslavement and all the events that flow forth from it as part of a plan to bring the Israelites to Egypt, see them enslaved by a future Pharaoh, and then redeemed in a miraculous act of redemption.

Yet, Joseph’s reassurance to his brothers that they are not to blame may not be so righteous and admirable. A modern commentator, Rabbi Ya’akov Beifuss, suggests that Joseph displays an odd and excessive desire to let his brothers off the hook. He writes,

“A doer of lovingkindness, out of a tendency to show the abundance of good in his heart, refuses to accept recompense for the good he did. Such a person would do well to consider and check whether this behavior flows from a perfect will to do good or, perhaps, he wants his friend to remain a slave to him forever for his kindness. He ought to free his friend from the feeling of indebtedness that was created…”

 In other words, Joseph’s eagerness to connect his fate to God’s will and the Divine plan may be less than genuine. By so eagerly letting them off the hook Joseph robs his brothers of the opportunity to be held accountable for what they did to him. In reality, the brothers need to be found guilty. They need the opportunity to perform an act of teshuva, to express regret and make amends. Joseph needs to give his brothers a chance to apologize and affirm their willingness to try to be better people. That he lets them off the hook may very well be a mind game, another act of quiet revenge.

When we err, it’s nice to be forgiven. But when we hurt others or make serious mistakes, we also need to accept responsibility for what we have done, be held accountable and make amends, for that is the pathway to peace of mind and wholeness.

Note: This Shabbat we will read the Haftarah in a different and special way. Part of the prophetic reading, from the 37th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, will be read in Hebrew and part will be read in English, along with an introduction and commentary. The reading of the Haftarah has been a part of Shabbat and festival services for ages, but in recent times the reading of the prophetic message has become inaccessible to most congregants. Oheb Shalom is a congregation that strives to be innovative, so from time to time we will try new approaches to bringing the spirit of the Jewish tradition to our congregants.

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