I’m giving this davar in recognition of my recent birthday and 57th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah—you can do the math. My first davar 57 years ago is a story in itself. My Rabbi back then in Springfield, New Jersey was Israel S. Dresner, one of those extraordinary people you’re lucky to meet in a lifetime. To say he was a civil rights activist would be a gross understatement. According to Wikipedia, Rabbi Dresner was “the foremost rabbinic participant in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s.” He was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, who twice spoke at our synagogue in Springfield. Rabbi Dresner did not just talk about civil rights, he literally “walked the walk.” He went on numerous marches and Freedom Rides, which took tremendous commitment and courage. Four times he was jailed in Georgia and Florida, and in law school I learned about one of his cases, Dresner v. Tallahassee, which made it to the US Supreme Court. One of the things he was most proud of was being dubbed “the most arrested rabbi in America.”
How Rabbi Dresner found time to prepare me for my bar mitzvah amid all this is beyond me. About a month before the big day I submitted my davar to the Rabbi, and to be honest, it wasn’t that great. Three days before my bar mitzvah, I received the redraft. Actually, it wasn’t a redraft, it was a complete rewrite. There was little if any mention of the parshah. Rather, it was an emotional and eloquent plea for racial equality and justice, and for civil rights activism. Looking back, I can understand where the Rabbi was coming from and the urgency and importance of his message. But as a 13 year old with a fragile ego, I felt somewhat hurt and disrespected. Would I, should I, ever give another davar? Anyway, just a few years ago, I went to a talk given by Rabbi Dresner in Pittsfield, and afterward had a delightful conversation with him over lunch. Needless to say, he did not remember writing my davar, but,like the mensch he is, apologized for any hurt he might have caused.
Vayechi also addresses the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation that occurs many years after the triggering event. Vayechi is the shortest parshah of Bereisheit, but it raises some of the most important ethical and theological questions.
At the outset, I want to differentiate between apologizing for a sin and formally doing teshuvah. Teshuvah requires recognition of our guilt, and then admitting it both to ourselves and the person we harm. If we are to emotionally and psychologically right the wrong, we must humble ourselves before the person we wronged. The next step in teshuvah is to do everything possible to remedy the situation on a physical level. The last step in the process is resolving to change in the future, and no longer commit the sin in question. So, an apology is only a step–albeit an important one—on the road to teshuvah.
When the characters of Genesis sin, which is frequent, apologies are almost unheard of. Rather, the typical reaction is evasion, denial or excuses and rationalizations. As Cain so infamously answered God after killing Able, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are lots of other examples, ranging from Adam and Eve to Sarah and Abraham to Jacob and Laban.
The first apology in Torah is a dramatic one. Check out Chapter 38 of Bereisheit for the details. In a nutshell, Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar is pregnant by Judah, unbeknownst to him, and she is about to be executed for harlotry. Tamar proves to Judah that he is the father. Judah relents with the execution and says the famous words: “Tzadikah mimenu—“She is more right than I…”
It is no coincidence that Judah is the brother to give the impassioned speech to Joseph in Vayiggash, pleading that Joseph make him a slave, rather than Benjamin. This can be seen as satisfying one element of teshuvah. He refrains from committing the same sin he committed when he sold Joseph into slavery. Now, when confronted with Benjamin about to become a slave, he offers himself in Benjamin’s place. Before, the brothers had reduced Jacob to a state of mourning by lying to him about Joseph. Now, Judah is willing to sacrifice himself to avoid the crushing blow that Benjamin’s enslavement would have on Jacob. Judah’s compassionate change of behavior puts him well on the road to teshuvah. But to say that this constitutes teshuvah would be like arguing that if you rob someone in the past, recognize that you did wrong, and then refrain from robbing them in the future when you had the opportunity, you’ve done teshuvah.
In the aftermath of the emotional love-in that follows Judah’s speech and Joseph’s revelation, let’s not lose sight of one glaring omission: Neither Judah nor any of the other brothers apologize to Joseph. Without such an apology, there cannot be teshuvah or genuine reconciliation. During the brothers’ first visit to Egypt, Joseph accuses them of being spies. Joseph holds Simeon as a captive and insists that the brothers return with Benjamin. The brothers say to one another: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.” Reuben adds: “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy?’ But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” Many years have passed since they sold Joseph into slavery, and yet when misfortune befalls them, the first thing that pops into their heads is that they are being punished for that distant act. Obviously, the brothers have acknowledged their sin to themselves, feel guilty, and maybe are even tormented by guilt. But the brothers’ major regret is not that they sinned or caused devastating harm to Joseph and Jacob, but that they are now being punished. It’s like a bank robber who committed the crime 20 years before now expressing remorse because he finally got caught.
For me one of the most disturbing episodes in the relationship between the brothers occurs near the end of Vayechi after Jacob’s death (Chapter 50 beginning with verse 15). The brothers are freaking out that, with Jacob dead, Joseph will now take revenge: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for the wrong that we did him?” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, “Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.” First of all, note that the brothers don’t have the courage to face Joseph, they send a messenger. Second, they blatantly fabricate “instructions” from their dead father. Teshuvah and reconciliation cannot be built on a foundation of lies. The brothers must have had such an acute sense of guilt, bordering on paranoia, that they would say anything to save their lives. Bear in mind that the brothers have now been living in Egypt for 17 years under Joseph’s protection. Yet they still distrust and fear him. That’s a sad commentary on the family dynamics. Let’s look at what Joseph says and does after Judah’s speech in Vayiggash: ”Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you….God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” “He kissed his brothers and wept upon them.” The parshah goes on to say that “Joseph settled his father and brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt… Joseph sustained his father and his brothers…” These are not the words and actions of a vengeful brother. This is not Esau threatening to kill Jacob after Isaac dies. There is no indication whatsoever in the text that Joseph at any time or in any way threatened his brothers. To the contrary, he protected them and looked after their welfare. Perhaps the brothers’ lies were triggered by panic and acute guilt, but if so, it was an irrational reaction without basis in reality.
When Joseph broke down emotionally after Judah’s speech, you might imagine that the brothers, in the spirit of reconciliation, would admit their guilt to Joseph, as they did to themselves, and ask for forgiveness. And after Jacob’s death, you might also have expected the brothers to apologize and ask for closure. Instead, they orchestrate a pathetic charade based on lies and emotional appeals. They cynically and disrespectfully exploit their dead father as a tool in their panicked efforts. Where is their integrity? Where is their courage to approach Joseph face to face and apologize?
What may be even more disturbing than the brothers’ fabrications is Joseph’s reaction to this charade: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” On the surface, these seem to be words of deep compassion and forgiveness. On the positive side, Joseph sees his role as a tool of God and not as a substitute for God. I applaud his lack of hubris and refusal to substitute for God in the punishment of his brothers’ sins. But if we look below the surface, we uncover a Joseph who is still the somewhat egotistical and oblivious dreamer and a dangerous enabler. He is essentially giving his brothers’ abhorrent behavior a free pass because the behavior coincidentally and indirectly led to something good. This makes no sense ethically or rationally, and taken to the logical extreme leads to post facto justification of evil conduct.
Imagine this situation: in the mid 1800’s, a slave trader abducts a woman named Mary, later to be Mary Carver, from her home in Africa where her life as a shepherd is expected to be “nasty, brutish and short.” Mary is sold into slavery in Missouri. Shortly after her son, George, is born, the Civil War ends and Mary and her son are emancipated. George is lucky enough to have educational opportunities in Iowa, and becomes a great botanist. Through his accomplishments, George Washington Carver saves many lives and improves the lives of many others. Should we say to the slave trader, “No worries, you intended to enslave innocent victims, but they were ultimately freed and because they ended up in the US, they were able to make great contributions to society that they otherwise could not have made. So, all’s well that ends well, it was all part of God’s plan.” When someone acts badly, especially with evil intent, and the conduct through chance or coincidence results in something positive, are we to excuse the wrongdoing after the fact as part of the divine plan? Joseph seems to reason that no matter how much evil a person does in the world, if God wishes, all of that evil can be transmuted into positive outcomes. Since the outcomes are positive, the ethical valence of the inputs is meaningless. This way of thinking undercuts free will and personal responsibility, and transforms humans into irresponsible puppets of God. By not holding his brothers accountable, especially given their failure to apologize and do teshuvah, Joseph excuses and “enables” their wrongdoing and their failure to do teshuvah.
Joseph’s response to his brothers also begs the question, what is the divine plan? Some people would argue that since God is omnipotent and controls everything, nothing in the world happens that is not part of the divine plan. Therefore, everything that happens, no matter how unspeakable, no matter how horrendous, is all part of the divine plan. That is a theology I cannot subscribe to. I believe it’s the height of human arrogance to claim, like Joseph, that we know what the divine plan is, or even whether there is a divine plan at all.
I think it’s important to differentiate between God’s knowledge of what the future holds and what God intends. Early in Genesis, God tells Abraham in a vision that his nation will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Is this God’s plan–what God affirmatively intends to happen–or simply what God foresees happening and can’t or won’t prevent in the furtherance of free will and human responsibility? The answer to this question is far beyond human knowledge.
There are many commentators, such as Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief Rabbi of England, who see the book of Bereisheit ending on the sweet note of familial reconciliation, teshuvah and the comforting vision of the divine plan fulfilled. To me, this amounts to little more than wishful thinking. I’m sorry to be a downer, but to look the text squarely in the eye, Bereisheit ends with superficial reconciliation, no apologies, no teshuvah and an egotistical and illusory vision of a “divine plan.” Not to mention the specter of slavery lurking around the corner. But all these things are what make Torah the powerful document that it is; a hard, unvarnished view of reality. No fairy tale endings and no sugar coatings. But to honestly engage with the text, we can learn much from the flaws and mistakes of our ancestors. They can provide a gateway to deep psychological and spiritual insights. Perhaps the foremost lesson of Veyechi and of Joseph’s brothers is the necessity of responding to our sins, not with denial, lies or excuses, but with honesty and strength. I know this is really hard, but may we all have the courage to face those we’ve wronged and say, “I realize that I’ve sinned, that I’ve hurt you, and I’m truly sorry and will do my very best to make it up to you and never do it again.”