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Naomi Graetz

The Danger of Forgiving and Forgetting

SUMMING UP A LIFE, A YEAR, A BOOK

This week’s parshat vayechi is a summation of both Jacob’s and Joseph’s lives. They both die in Egypt—Jacob gets buried with great ceremony in Canaan in the plot purchased by Abraham for his wife Sarah. Joseph, however will have to wait many years to be buried in the plot near Shechem after the Israelites leave Egypt. We have travelled a long way from the beginning of the Book of Genesis which we began reading on October 7th 2023. We are now entering a new secular year on Sunday, when we start the Book of Exodus which begins with our slavery in Egypt with a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. It was starvation that caused Jacob to leave Canaan and then he and his family lived the good life in Egypt in the land of Goshen for many years. At some point things must have not worked out. We have no inkling of what happened to cause the Israelites to become slaves. I actually have a theory about it. Even though it states: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), I think the Egyptians knew very much about the administrator who turned the population into slaves. And there was eventual “payback” for the Israelites, the protected people, the family of Joseph.

JACOB, THE FATHER AND JOSEPH, THE SON

Then there is the fraught relationship between Joseph and Jacob, and between Joseph and his brothers at the end of the book. Both Joseph and Jacob see the world from their perspective of being victims of their brothers. Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Joseph was his father’s. Jacob cheated his brother out of his inheritance by wearing his brother’s best clothes and Joseph was stripped of the cloak, the ketonet passim, which symbolized his father’s favoritism of him. Jacob had to leave his country because he feared his brother’s wrath, and Joseph left his country when his brother’s sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him down to Egypt. Both managed very well for themselves in exile. But Jacob was never able to get over the death of his beloved son Joseph. He continued to mourn for the rest of his life. He did not appreciate his family. The resentment that he felt for Laban, who had cheated him of his beloved wife Rachel lingered on into the next generation. Only Joseph and Benjamin were the objects of his love. His ten other sons, felt, and probably were, unloved.

Yet famine does strange things to people. It forces one to think of only one thing: how to survive. The Egyptians, sold themselves and their land to Joseph, for food. And Jacob and his family came down to Egypt to fill their bellies. From being the proud unyielding patriarch, Jacob now becomes a vassal of Joseph/Pharaoh. True, he and his sons had all their needs taken care of; they were given the best land to live in. But when asked by Pharaoh how old he was he answered my life was terrible.

Pharaoh asked Jacob, “How many are the years of your life?” And Jacob answered Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my ancestors during their sojourns” (Genesis 47: 8-9).

That is how he summed up his life. He was totally unappreciative of the richness of his life; of the fact that he had twelve sons and many grandsons. His focus was on the bad in his life, not the good. And when he comes to bless his sons, he doesn’t have a good word for most of them. He curses Shimon and Levi. He has terrible things to say about Dan. Only Judah and Joseph are saved from his negative outlook. And he follows the family tradition of favoring the younger over the elder, despite Joseph’s protests, when he blesses Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph is horrified by this; after all it was the favoritism of his father that caused him to be hated by his brothers, to the point that they could not speak to him.

It is interesting that after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they cry and kiss one another and then the same brothers who in their youth, were unable to speak a friendly word to him– לֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃— (Genesis 37: 4) are now able to speak to him:

וַיְנַשֵּׁ֥ק לְכׇל־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּ֣בְךְּ עֲלֵהֶ֑ם וְאַ֣חֲרֵי כֵ֔ן דִּבְּר֥וּ אֶחָ֖יו אִתּֽוֹ׃

He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him (Genesis 45:15).

Speech, talking to one another without an interpreter is the beginning of true reconciliation.

As to Joseph, did he ever get over what was done to him by his brothers? On the surface, it seems that he does. One would think that all would be well; however, when Jacob dies, in this week’s parsha, the brothers are rightfully fearful. Is Joseph going to have his revenge after all? They know what they did to him. Joseph’s answer, when his brothers ask him for forgiveness and say they are prepared to be his slaves, is enlightening:

“Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents.” Thus, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them (Genesis 50:15-21).

SHOULD WE FORGIVE AND FORGET

We do not forget trauma. It dictates our lives. There is no such thing as forgive and forget. Perhaps forgive, but never forget. Zachor—remember is part of our heritage. We do not turn the other cheek. What does it mean to be in captivity? We are now hearing stories of the hostages who were held in Gaza: the humiliation, the currying favor so that they could get food and survive, the trauma that will never go away. One released captive, wrote that she was “a prize: that people from the outside came to see” almost as if she was in a zoo. All she wanted to do was survive and she even curried favor with her captors to that end. She said: “I had one goal. I will make them like me, so I can get food, so I can get water.” Will she ever forget or forgive?

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE

Can we, or should we compare Joseph’s declaration of forgiveness to his brothers with a mother’s amazing statement of forgiveness and love to the soldier who killed her son by “mistake”? I am sure that most of you have heard the story of the “nobility” of the mother whose son, the hostage, was shot dead together with two other hostages by IDF soldiers who thought they were a threat despite the white flag they were waving. Five days after this happened she recorded a message telling these soldiers not to question themselves or their actions. She said it was not their fault, but that of the Hamas. And she added: “And nobody’s going to judge you or be angry. Not me, and not my husband, my daughter. And not Yotam, may his memory be blessed. And not his brother. We love you very much. And that is all.”

Or should we compare Joseph’s statement with yet another bereaved parent, this time a father? The headline reads: ‘Bereaved father wants to hug soldiers who shot his son in friendly fire’. This time the father was standing next to an Israeli flag, telling the soldiers who killed their son in “friendly fire”, that he has no anger for the soldiers. He expressed support to them and invited them to him, his wife and his two siblings so that they could hug them.

On the surface we admire these bereaved families for their noble statements, just like we admire Joseph for his understanding that it was God’s plan for his brothers to almost kill him. And I think we admire such people, because it is totally unnatural to most of us.

THE DANGER OF FORGIVING: LETTING PERPETRATORS OFF THE HOOK

I am afraid that it might be a dangerous precedent. And yes, I know it is war time, when wrong decisions can easily be made. And I also know that war crimes are sometimes swept under the table or are not even considered crimes in the heat of battle. However, there sometimes is a culture of violence in the army that accepts mistakes and friendly fire as par for the course. When two parents say to soldiers, it’s okay that you killed our sons by mistake, they are also saying to the country that it’s okay to overlook such killings. In contrast, When Yuval Castleman was killed by an off-duty soldier, his father demanded answers and argued correctly that the perpetrator should be punished. This father’s reaction is as normal a reaction as that of the other bereaved parents who are forgiving. The father of another hostage of the three, was not as loving toward the army. He said that lawlessness led to soldiers mistakenly shooting his son in Gaza, and demanded that the army recognize his son as a fallen soldier who was killed by friendly fire. “It wasn’t neglect, it was lawlessness. Someone took the rules of engagement into his own hands and killed my son, that’s all.”

We have to be very careful when we forgive IDF soldiers who kill by mistake. True, the soldier who killed them will never forgive himself and will feel guilty for the rest of their lives. But we do not want cases like these to become routine.

SO BACK TO JOSEPH

I would like to give Joseph an interior monologue about what his thoughts were when he “forgave” his brothers. These can serve as his last words:

I know that my brothers are scared to death that I will take my revenge on them. And I like that they are scared. They deserve to be scared and I hope that they will see through my words of comfort—”speaking to their hearts”. After Shechem raped my sister Dinah, he also “spoke to her heart”. Anyone who speaks to the heart of someone else has the upper hand. I certainly have power; I can speak to anyone the way I want and they have to believe I really forgive them. But I shed tears every time I see them; Whenever I see them, I am reminded of my terror, when they thrust me into the pit and would have killed me but for the intervention of Judah. They have no understanding of the long-lasting trauma they have inflicted on me. Every day I wake up all sweaty from my dreams in which I am a pitiful figure, naked and mocked. After arriving in Egypt in chains, it took years until I got to where I am now. I must hold on tight to my power; keep it all together; I cannot fall apart. So yes, I will reassure my brothers. In the future, people will hold me up as an exemplar of “you shall love your brother as yourself”, but right now I am bogged down in my never-ending trauma. So, I am leaving a message in my last will and testament. Like my father, I will follow up on his curses and order my people to see that they get a taste of slavery and what it means to be set upon and persecuted. I will be long dead by then, so who cares! Until then I will be known as Joseph the Tzaddik, who forgives and forgets. Hah!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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