Last week’s parsha has the whole big story of how Joseph sets up his brothers in Egypt; plants a goblet in Benjamin’s sack so he’ll get in trouble, tries once again to “lord over”his brothers, makes them squirm for how they treated him in the past. He seeks revenge. First he accuses them of a crime they haven’t committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. He is really into seeing his brothers suffer.
But his brothers are an idea. They don’t really exist for him outside of his imagination of who they were when they sold him into slavery. They are still a concept- people he is angry at. They are not really people yet for him- they are “those guys who were really horrible to me when I was a kid.” But as his own brothers they don’t really exist.
But something huge happens in this week’s parsha. The brothers appear before Joseph, with Benjamin, the littliest brother. They are terrified. And they repent, right in front of Joseph: first they confess to what they had done to him in the past, in 42:21: “Surely we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” …Then they express remorse, in 44:16, “What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt…” Then they offer to do better this time, by saying Judah will stay and be a slave rather than going back a second time to their father Jacob without a favoured brother. In 42: 33 Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to be a slave himself to change the future for Benjamin. He cries “now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad….”
Then they cry. They simply cry. Scared, guilt-ridden, confused, broken humbled, the brothers cry to Joseph— and something shifts inside Joseph. Something really hard, really brittle, breaks in Joseph. Something frozen in him melts in a way it never has before. He can’t play cat and mouse with them anymore. They are real- they are fallible, flawed human beings like him. He sees them for the first time with compassion. He’s been humbled in Egypt, in the prison, by Potiphar’s wife, by his life, by his loneliness. He is moved to be real, to be human, in this tender but terrifying moment with his sibs.
He cannot control himself- he yells for everyone to get out of the room except the brothers. He cannot stop weeping. He reveals himself to his brothers and then, he does something extraordinary. He forgives them. And that is when his brothers become real people, and he, Joseph, becomes fully human; no longer a stoic, polished, privileged and pampered Egyptian prince, but a flesh-and-blood brother and son.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote an amazing article about this parsha called The Day Forgiveness Was Born. I want to share an excerpt from his article because it is so profound. Sacks writes: “Forgiveness is not just one idea among many. It transformed the human situation. For the first time it established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. And when I forgive I show that my action is not mere reaction, the way revenge would be. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of the past….Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers.”
Seventeen years later, when Jacob dies, the brothers are once again frightened that maybe Joseph didn’t really forgive them, and will punish them, now that dad is gone. In Genesis 50 they implore Joseph— now that Jacob is dead— to remember his compassion of earlier years. Once again he assures them, and once again, he weeps. He weeps that forgiveness is not automatic, not easy, not assumed. He weeps, and he forgives yet again.
Yes, his brothers earn that forgiveness. This is not Christian “turn the other cheek.” And they continue to earn that forgiveness. They know, and we know, that forgiveness transforms the human condition. To forgive and be forgiven is what makes us b’tzelem Elohim-in the image of Divinity.