Forgiveness: Can you imagine? Thoughts on Parasha Vayechi

One of the many reasons that I love living in Chicago is its top notch theatre scene. This past Tuesday night, I had the opportunity to see the incredible Chicago residence production of ‘Hamilton’ for the the third time. Now don’t worry–I am not going to break out into song any time soon. Those of you who have had the privilege to see this play or at least have downloaded the cast recording have certainly noticed the sheer amount of words this musical entails. I think after three viewings and countless number of hours listening to the album, perhaps, just perhaps, I have caught most of the clever lyrics. This time seeing the show, I was struck by the musical number, ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ where we find Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler Hamilton and her husband Alexander trying to make a new life after significant traumas that would be unbearable or ‘unimaginable’ for anyone–infidelity and the loss of a beloved child. Yet, despite all their troubles, the song continues with the pointed refrain- ‘Forgiveness-Imagine Forgiveness.’ Eliza Hamilton’s ability to forgive her husband’s betrayal of their marriage and involvement in their son’s death is scene as something other worldly, something divine. Her act of kindness allows for her family to continue and helps her husband’s important accomplishments before his violent death. Even after he is shot dead is his famous duel with Aaron Burr, she continues to serve the country and her community. Her act of forgiveness elevates her legacy and allows her to have an enduring future.

Forgiveness–the ability and inability to forgive is so prevalent in our Parasha today. Our opening scene begins with Yaakov essentially on his death bed, assessing his life by looking back and delivering a blessing or as some have suggested, a forward looking direction or prophecy to each of his sons.

As it states:

פרק מט
א וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים:

And Yaakov called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come.’

As we just heard in the Torah reading, Yaakov then goes on, son by son, describing each son’s essence and future. While most of these ‘blessings’ and predictions are structured positively, some are decidedly not. While addressing his first born Reuven, Yaakov starts out on a good note telling him that he is ‘Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor.’ (3)- יתר שאת, ויתר עז. But then the tone changes abruptly as Yaakov states:

ד פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל־תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה:

(4) Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, You brought disgrace, my couch he mounted!

Yaakov acknowledges Reuven’s first born status but summarily takes it away as he cannot overlook his son’s behavior with his maidservant and wife Bilhah.

Yaakov’s indignant tone in his inability to forgive Reuven’s conduct is even more pointed when he addresses Shimon and Levi. Whereas his words for Reuven may be considered the wind up, Yaakov’s statement to his next born sons is the knock out punch.

ה שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם: ו בְּסֹדָם אַל־תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל־תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ־שׁוֹר: ז אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

Shimon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. (6) Let not my person be included in their council- Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry, they slay men, And when pleased, they maim oxen. (7) Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.

Clearly, there is absolutely no hint of forgiveness in Yaakov’s words. His angry diatribe seems to doom Shimon and Levi’s futures–in a sense saying- You were bad then, you are bad now and you will always be bad.
To try and get a handle on Yaakov’s dire predictions for his sons, it is important to take a quick digression to פרשת וישלח. There, we have the infamous story of Shimon and Levi’s sister Dina. Yaakov and company had just set up camp in the city of Shechem. Chamor, the chief of the city, had a son, also named Shechem, who saw Dina, took her and ‘וישכב אתה ויענה’- ‘lay with her by force.’ Yaakov’s initial reaction to his daughter’s sexual assault is a numbing silence. His sons however find out what had happened to their sister and were incensed. Chamor meets with the brothers to arrange a marriage between his son and Dina. Eventually, they agree to the match but require that all the men of Shechem circumcise themselves before hand. The text indicates that this demand is a ruse to put the men of Shechem in a vulnerable position. On the third day after the circumcision–apparently the day of greatest pain and weakness– Shimon and Levi went into the city of Shechem and slaughtered all the males, took their women and children and all the livestock.

Here Yaakov reacts immediately and is quite vocal ,in sharp contrast to his silent reaction to Dina’s defilement. His anger here stems from Shimon and Levi’s possible damage to his reputation and for his physical safety. He says to them-

(34:30) ….; You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.’ It is interesting to note, that Yaakov’s wrath derives from a worry of potential harm, not actual harm to himself or to his reputation. His fears are not realized and his family grows and prospers in relative peace. Yaakov again is still silent here regarding his daughter. His sons however reply to Yaakov’s concerns but stating quite bluntly what Yaakov cannot bring himself to acknowledge- ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’

But still at the end of his life, Yaakov just can’t seem to let beef with Shimon and Levi go. We have a hint in the beginning of this narrative that perhaps he knows that he just can’t achieve that level of forgiveness. Last night I spoke about Yaakov’s recognition that he just did not have it in him to forgive so much whereas his wife Rachel did. Yaakov’s life ends with Yosef and his brothers returning to Israel to bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron with the rest of his kin excluding Rachel who died on the way to Efrat near Beit Lechem.

Whereas Yaakov could not seem to forgive a potential–not actual–harm to himself and his reputation, Yosef, however, is able to forgive a far worse and actual crime that his brothers did to him.

The point is not lost on the brothers when they return from burying their father and they say: (50:15) ‘What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’

So, they send word to Yosef saying that before their father died he instructed them to send a this message to Yosef and beg his forgiveness for their misdeeds against him. (Just an aside- there was no evidence in the previous text of Yaakov giving them any such message and even more curious, if Yaakov ever really knew what his sons actually did to Yosef)- Regardless, the brothers’ statement moves Yosef to tears. The brothers then go to Yosef in person and offer to be his slaves. Yosef reassures them that he intends them no harm and the entire incident was for the good- a גם זה לטובה- and intended by Gd to bring about the survival of his people. Yosef allays their fears and promises to support them and their children, all the while speaking kindly to them. And they lived happily, ever after.

What allows Yosef to be so forgiving– for an actual harm–being thrown in a pit, threatened with death and then sold into slavery–whereas Yaakov can’t seem to let go of a perceived harm? (As an aside–it is important to note that both incidents– of Dina and of Yosef being thrown in the pit both happen in the city of Shechem)

The answer lies, I believe, in an interesting statement by Yosef to his brothers. After offering to be his slaves, Yosef responds to his brothers by saying:

יט … אַל־תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹקים אָנִי:

50:19… ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for Gd?’

The Midrash Sechel Tov from the 12th century Italian commentator Menachem ben Sholomo ben Yitzchak, reads this pasuk, slightly differently, not as a question but as an affirmative declaration. Yosef says therefore ‘Indeed, I am instead of Gd. The midrash has Yosef continue: I follow his ways. Just as He forgives sin so do I forgive sin.
What elevates Yosef to a Gdlike status is his ability to forgive. Yosef’s actions are arguably the very first time in the Torah that complete forgiveness for truly horrific actions is achieved. This forgiveness as a primary and Gdlike concept, is somewhat of an innovation that the Jewish tradition brought to this world at this time.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his weekly review of the Parasha notes: (Jewish Time: Vayechi 5777)-
‘Forgiving… is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.’

Rabbi Sacks goes on to say: ‘Atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expressions of human freedom- the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past, and the freedom not to be trapped in a cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Only those who can forgive can be free. Only a civilization based on forgiveness can construct a future that is not an endless repetition of the past…’

Rabbi Sacks sees that Yosef’s act of forgiveness was necessary for the the Jewish people to have a future. It was his Holy act that allows for the move from the Jewish tribes to the Jewish nation.

Our sages recognition of Yosef’s divine act of forgiveness is highlighted in a beautiful piece from the Jerusalem Talmud, the Yerushalmi, in Tractate Berakhot, 14a: ( Admittedly I am quite partial to this piece of Talmud as it was part of my Bat Mitzvah drasha ) The midrash here stems from Yosef’s request at the end of the parasha that after his death his brothers should bring his bones from Egypt to be buried in Eretz Yisrael.

The midrash begins:

‘Two aronot (aron being used here as a term for the Ark of the Covenant and Yosef’s coffin) went with Am Yisrael in the desert. One Aron was of ‘Chai Olamim- Everlasting life, that being the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Torah) and the other Aron, was that of Yosef… The nations of the world asked [the children] of Israel how it could be possible that the Ark of Everlasting Life could travel next to Aron of Death, a coffin? The [Children of] Israel said [that this was possible] because the one Aron observed what was written in the other Aron.’

What exactly had Yosef observed of the Torah in his lifetime, especially since the actual giving of the Torah was long after his death? I would like to suggest that Yosef observed the mitzvah of מחילה – of forgiveness. And while this particular mitzvah is not specifically delineated in our Torah text, it is learned from Gd’s behavior, especially regarding his relationship with the Jewish people.

Yosef’s actual burial in the land of Israel can also be seen as a way of achieving wholeness and forgiveness. The burial is recorded in Book of Joshua and I believe it is no accident, that Yosef is buried in Shechem–his burial serving as an atonement and forgiveness for the evils that occurred there.

As Alexander Pope famously noted in his ‘An Essay on Criticism’-

‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ All people commit sins and make mistakes. Gd forgives them, and people are acting in a Gdlike, divine way when they forgive.

Yaakov’s inability to forgive destines his children to a never ending loop of revenge and violence. Yosef however is able through his divine act of forgiveness to break the cycle and allow for a true and sustainable future for his family and ultimately the entire Jewish people. His courage to see beyond the unimaginable transforms the entire world.

Yosef’s actions challenge us to:

‘Can you imagine?- Forgiveness- Can you imagine?’

By embracing our Gdlike ability to forgive, we too are given the chance to transform ourselves, our families, our community and ultimately the world.

About the Author
Marianne lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. Marianne is also a Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor. I am also a fourth year student at Yeshivat Maharat.
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