Shaya Kass
Focus, Flourish and Fly using science

To forgive or not to forgive?

In last week’s parasha, after Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, they don’t say a word. The torah even tells us in chapter 45 sentence 3, “that the brothers were in shock”. They didn’t say anything that day. They didn’t say anything before they began their trip back to Canaan to get Yaakov and their wives. Okay.

But there are 17 years between when Yaakov comes down to Egypt and when he dies. The brothers have 17 years to talk to Yosef. They never ask for forgiveness. Were they even sorry?

Perhaps they didn’t ask for forgiveness because they thought they didn’t do anything wrong. It is said that the brothers, at least Reuven, seemed surprised when they went to the pit and Yosef was not there. Even more reason to not apologize, they hadn’t sold him, they had no idea he was in Egypt or they may have gone to look for him. What had they done? Threw him in a pit for a few hours? Then when he disappeared, they didn’t want their father to anguish so they lied and told Yaakov that Yosef was dead. They hoped that Yaakov might take this with some finality and move on. If I have done nothing wrong, why should I apologize?

But all that doesn’t really add up because this week they show that they knew they needed to be forgiven.

In this week’s parasha, Yaakov dies. What is the first thing the brothers do after burying Yaakov and coming back to Egypt, they lie. Yosef’s brothers come to him and tell him that Yaakov, before he died, asked them to tell Yosef to forgive the brothers. They lied! And again, they never ask for forgiveness. They had enough presence of mind to know they need to be forgiven, but they never ask for it.

And Yosef gives an answer that is almost identical to the answer he gave last week, “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.”

Now, first thing. Whether we call this Yosef forgiving his brothers or not, he is certainly an amazing person not holding it against them.

But does he forgive? They certainly never ask for forgiveness so I cannot write about asking for forgiveness, but does Yosef forgive? Well, to answer that question, we have to define “forgiveness”.

Roy Denton and Michael Martin in 1998 found a definition of “forgiveness” by asking 164 social workers how they defined forgiveness when working with clients. The majority said that forgiveness (1) is an inner process of releasing anger and fear, (2) is a reduced desire to retaliate, (3) takes time and (4) does not require one to forget the painful incident.

Let’s look at Yosef. (1) Did Yosef release anger and fear? It certainly seems so. We see no evidence that he was still angry with his brothers. You could argue that when he kept hiding goblets in their bags, he may have been angry and was doing it to retaliate. But certainly, since last week’s parasha, he shows no anger or fear. (2) Did Yosef show a desire to retaliate? We see no evidence of that after the goblets. (3) Did it take time, perhaps. (4) Did he forget the painful incident? Don’t think so.

Yosef really had a very healthy reaction. He seems to have forgiven his brothers. Did they ask for it? It doesn’t seem so. Did they deserve it? It really doesn’t matter.

What can we learn from Yosef? We can learn to forgive even people who don’t ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we have to see these people day after day. We can continue to be angry even though we know that we only hurt ourselves. Sometimes we have to forgive people who we don’t see. The teacher who gave us a bad grade and changed our academic career. The boss who fired us unfairly 20 years ago. And sometimes we have to forgive people who have passed away. There is zero chance that they will ask for forgiveness so it is only up to us.

But is there a good reason to forgive? In 2006 Kathleen A. Lawler-Row & Rachel L. Piferi did a study with 425 people aged 50 to 95. I found this interesting because some people, as they get older, get more set in their ways and might be less forgiving. Drs. Lawler-Ros and Piferi wanted to see if people who have a forgiving personality were healthier. They found that people who had a forgiving personality had better health behaviors and better subjective well-being. So being forgiving is good for your health.

Another facet of forgiveness is self-forgiveness, something that I sometimes struggle with. Remember that forgiveness (1) is an inner process of releasing anger and fear, (2) is a reduced desire to retaliate, (3) takes time and (4) does not require one to forget the painful incident. We can think of self-forgiveness as releasing anger toward ourselves, not wanting to “beat ourselves up”, it can take time and we don’t have to forget what we did. And self-forgiveness is also healthy for you.

How do you forgive? Some think that you just have to make the choice to forgive, say, ‘I forgive you” and you are done. But research shows that this doesn’t work so well. It is a process. As a matter of fact, it is a long process. It takes time. But not necessarily a lot of time. Mathias Allemand, Marianne Steiner, and Patrick L. Hill created a program in 2013 and showed that two 3 ½ hour sessions was enough to help people move toward forgiveness.

Let us learn from Yosef. We should be more forgiving for our own sakes and our own health. Even if the other person doesn’t deserve it, or perhaps especially if the other person doesn’t deserve it. Even if the other person is us!

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