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.

The Sin That Can’t Be Forgiven

Is there something so terrible that someone could do to you or to someone you care about that would make you think their act cannot be forgiven? Is there a sin so heinous that it cannot be wiped away by repentance? That is certainly an intriguing question with no obvious answer. The typical person might say that a thoroughly evil person, someone like Adolph Hitler, did things that could never be forgiven and should be punished by death. It’s the less obvious cases that provoke thought and debate.

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, twin cities that were apparently so evil that they merited being wiped out by God. And that’s after God affirmed that he would never again repeat the wholesale destruction brought on by flooding the earth, a promise symbolized by a rainbow placed in the sky. What did the Sodomites do that could not have been addressed through rehabilitation and that merited their destruction?

One answer is that they were guilty of sexual depravity, a notion that is supported by the Torah text itself. The Sodomites demand that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who is hosting two angelic visitors in his home, release his guests to them so that they can commit an act of sexual assault against them. Traditional commentators describe the Sodomites as lacking respect for others, an attitude reflected in their depraved behavior.

Other commentaries, ranging from Talmudic sages to early modern Torah scholars, take a surprisingly different approach by interpreting the sin of the Sodomites as xenophobia. Rabbi Naftali Hertz Landau, a 19th century German scholar whose work is known as “Imrei Shefer,” wrote the following:

The description of the Sodomites abject depravity can be seen as a proof text defending God’s desire to destroy them. The reason why the Sodomites barred strangers from their city was their fear that those foreigners might eventually displace the natives from positions of authority and leadership. They said to Lot, “Think of what would happen if we were to open our gates to more foreigners. Why, they might take over our entire city.” 

The midrash also alludes to the same idea, when it says:

The Sodomites observed an ancient covenant in the city that no one take in guests. They said to Lot, “If you want to take in guests, if you want to welcome outsiders, build yourself a house elsewhere.”

I’m sure that Rabbi Landau and the Midrashic sages would have quite a bit to say about the immigration debate in the United States, and even about the Syrian refugee crisis, were they among us today. But they certainly seemed to think that the sin of the Sodomites was the total rejection of strangers, and that God was justified in wiping them out because of it.

Others comment that the sin of the Sodomites was that of selfishness. In Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that preceded the era of the Talmud, we find the following comment:

There are four types of character in people: 1) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is yours.” This is a typical type; some say this is a Sodom-type of character. 2) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is mine,” is an unlearned person. 3) One that says, “Mine is yours and yours is yours,” is a pious person. 4) One that says, “Mine is mine, and yours is mine,” is a wicked person.

Pirkei Avot 5:10

The passage contrasts four types of people, ranging from supremely giving and generous to entirely selfish. Concerning the entirely selfish person, the one who says “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours,” the person who cares only about himself and has no concern for anyone else, is described as “typical.” But other sages disagree and describe such a person as being like the people from Sodom. In other words, the great sin of the Sodomites, that for which they were destroyed without any chance for repentance or rehabilitation, was that of callous selfishness.

So what sin can never be forgiven? The sin of xenophobia? The sin of selfishness? The sin of turning one’s back on our fellow human beings and caring about ourselves only? It may not be that God will punish such behavior with the ultimate punishment, certainly not in the way the Sodomites were punished. But if we behave in that way, if we turn our backs on others with an utter lack of compassion and an absence of generosity of spirit, then we will surely have committed a sin whose impact may be irreparable.

Can You Forgive, and also Forget?

The story is told about two monks who were driving a horse pulled cart to the market. Along their way they see a young woman who is unable to cross a deep, muddy patch because it was impassable by foot. The monk driving the cart stops and goes over to pick up and carry the woman across the mud so she can continue on her way. He then returns to his brother on the cart to continue his own journey, but his partner isn’t speaking to him. A couple of hours later, he asks “Why are you so silent? Is it because I picked up that woman a while back?” “Yes,” replied his companion…you know that is against our rules.” “I am sad for you, my friend,” said the first monk. “I put that woman down two hours ago but I see you are still carrying her.”

As we approach Yom Kippur, we are each called on by our tradition to consider what baggage we carry with us through life. What resentments, hurt feelings and moments that we got angry at someone are we unwilling or unable to put down? And what effect does it have on us when we continue to carry around that kind of emotional baggage? We would be better off, live each day with a cleaner, healthier state of mind, as if we had lost a noticeable amount of weight, were we able to jettison such feelings of bitterness?

No doubt, it’s a tall order to let go of such experiences and feelings that weigh us down and cause us to feel resentment, annoyance and even anger at others for things done to us, said to us or spoken about us. Our ability to do that is surely connected to the severity of what was done to us and the nature of the offending person’s relationship to us. But letting go of old resentments, and forgetting them, should be our goal. We should aspire toward true forgiveness, which entails releasing the claim we have on people for what they have done to us, not only because it seems like the right thing to do to let someone out of the prison of being resented, but because it is what is the most emotionally healthy thing we can do for ourselves. We may, perhaps subconsciously, want to embrace the role of the injured party, but we would do better feeling clean and unfettered by such feelings.

Each Yom Kippur, we pray these words during the Al Chet, the Long Confessional: “V’al Kulam Eloha Selichot, Slach Lanu, M’chal Lanu, Kaper Lanu… For all these sins, God of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” These terms may seem like synonyms, but they actually mean different things. M’chila (as in M’chal Lanu) means to pardon, which can be understood as accepting someone’s apology for what they did but not overlooking their transgression. S’chila (as in S’chal Lanu) means to forgive, which can be understood as not only accepting someone’s apology but also overlooking what they did, not remembering it, and not feeling emotionally weighed down by it every time we encounter that person. Kaper Lanu (as in Yom Kippur) asks God for “atonement,” which could also be translated as “reconciliation.” To achieve “at-one-ment” is to be reconciled with another person, or with God, to return to the state of being that existed prior to a transgression being committed that hurt the relationship.

On Yom Kippur, we pray to God not only to be pardoned, but also to be forgiven and to be reconciled with our Creator. And we pray for the capacity not only to pardon those who have hurt us but for the emotional ability to forgive them and to overlook what they have done to us, and to be reconciled with those we love and care about. We will feel better, lighter and cleaner for doing so.

Forgive but Don’t Forget

Those who have been the victim of a crime or some other type of offensive or invasive act often face a dilemma of whether or not to forgive and forget the terrible thing that was done to them.  This is true for individuals who have suffered hurt by the intentional or negligent act of another person.  And it is especially true for the Jewish people, who have, for centuries, been the victims of violence and persecution triggered by gratuitous hatred and anti-Semitism.  One thing we should remember is that it’s possible, even essential, that we forgive but not forget.

This idea is to be found in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), the Biblical story that we read on the holiday of Purim that will be celebrated in Jewish communities around the world this Saturday night and Sunday morning, as well as in the brief Maftir selection (concluding portion) of the Torah reading this Shabbat morning.  Known as “Shabbat Zachor,” this Shabbat calls for the reading of extra verses from the Book of Deuteronomy that relate God’s command to remember in perpetuity that Amalek, a ruthless and brutal tribe of barbarians, attacked the weak and helpless Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  These verses are deemed appropriate to be read on the Shabbat before Purim because, according to the Scroll of Esther, Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, was himself a descendant of the Amalekites.  It is striking that we are specifically commanded to remember what Amalek did.  Indeed, the commandment is emphasized by the inclusion of the words “…and don’t forget.”  Why are we commanded to remember something painful and traumatic?  Not to be vengeful or carry a grudge, but to be vigilant, cautious and careful around those we don’t know well and perhaps cannot trust.

In her outstanding commentary on Esther (published by JPS), Adele Berlin writes that Esther is a “diaspora tale,” a genre of Biblical story that was likely written as a way of assuring Diaspora Jews that they could maintain Jewish identity and be safe even while living away from the Land of Israel.  Yet, Jewish history has shown us that the assurances of stories like Esther often do not materialize.  Diaspora Jews have often been subject to brutal, violent oppression and death.  It could be argued that only the State of Israel offers a true haven for Jews from anti-Semitic violence and hatred.  Thus, we are told to be cautious and remember what has happened in the past in order to protect ourselves in the present.

At the same time, Purim reminds us that we cannot be vengeful.  Berlin also points out in her Esther commentary that some version of the Purim holiday likely existed prior to the writing of the scroll.  That would explain the nature of the holiday as one of revelry and raucous celebration, rather than a day given over to glorifying our violent victory over the Persians.  It could be argued that Jewish tradition would never give birth to a holiday based on the defeat of our enemies.  Can we really bring ourselves to celebrate the killing of Haman, his sons and countless Persians that resulted from our liberation (in fact, on Passover we symbolically mute such celebrations by reducing the amount of wine in our cups during the recitation of the Ten Plagues).  Rather, whatever holiday existed in antiquity before the Rabbinic Sages formalized the observance of Purim was likely a Mardi Gras, carnival like occasion that was, centuries later, layered over with the story of the victory of the Jews over the Persians.  In short, Purim is a fun holiday, not one to remember or glorify violence.  It’s a day to forgive, even quietly, the evil and violent acts committed against us in the past.  It may not be easy to do that, but it’s essential in order to live life free from grudges and resentments.  The only targets of those feelings are the ones who bear them.

Release anger, resentment and ill feeling toward others, but be cautious and vigilant in an effort to remain safe.  Forgive but don’t forget.  Sounds like sound, and very Jewish, advice.

Purim is not only for kids, it’s for adults as well.  So please join us for our celebration of Purim this Saturday night and Sunday morning.  Check the Oheb Shalom website for details!

B’shalom,

RABBI COOPER