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Not Perfect But Good Enough

12/25/2017 06:35:55 PM


Janet Leuchter

Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

Focal Point

  • When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all 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.' Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father." And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.
  • His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, "We are prepared to be your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good so as to sustain you and your children." Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)

D'var Torah

We all have seen it happen in real life: Siblings are estranged and have been for years. When their last surviving parent is dying, they decide to make peace for the parent's sake. They utter regret for hurts committed long ago. But after the parent dies comes the moment of truth: Will the siblings' peace hold? Yes, if words are accompanied by deeds and if a true change of heart is evident over time or in a crunch. But if old hurts flare up, the siblings may easily part again in distrust or bitterness.

Can we derive a magic formula for reconciliation from this week's parashah? Va-y'chi has a happy ending, yet it is perplexing, too. It is not until the very end of the story that Joseph's brothers apologize to him (Genesis 50:17). This apology comes long after the family reunion in Egypt and only after their father has died. Indeed, reconciliation and forgiveness seem already to have taken place long before, at the moment when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. Yet our tradition tells us that God will not pardon sin without confession, apology, and the making of amends to the one who has been wronged (Numbers 5:6-7; Yoma 8:9; Maimonides,Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Repentence" 2:1). And a crucial component of t'shuvah, "repentence," is verbal apology ("Laws of Repentence" 2:9). But does t'shuvah have to occur in a certain order? Some people wait their entire lives for verbal apologies that never come or are offered too late. In Joseph's case, he weeps when he hears his brothers' apology at the end of the story. Perhaps he is shedding tears of relief because he has waited so long to hear them utter these words.

Like many of us, the brothers begin doing t'shuvah without making a verbal apology. Indeed, Judah and his brothers might never have apologized had it not been for their fear of Joseph's intentions following their father's death. Perhaps Joseph weeps because he perceives that after all this time, they still don't trust him.

What the brothers don't realize is that Joseph had already tested and forgiven them. How did they pass the test? First, in chronological order, they expressed remorse to one another about their sin against Joseph when they thought he could not understand them (Genesis 42:21). Second, they, and especially Judah, showed that when they were faced with a similar situation, they did the right thing (Genesis 44:32-34): They demonstrated that they could finally put aside their jealousy to honor their father. And although they dallied in Canaan while their brother Simeon languished in Egyptian captivity, Judah put himself squarely on the line to redeem Benjamin. All this happened without their making a direct apology to Joseph.

For his part, Joseph never apologizes to his brothers for his youthful haughtiness-the trait that so enraged them. He, too, shows t'shuvah primarily in deeds: He saves his brothers' lives and protects them until his death, and he sets his feelings aside to honor his father when Jacob insists on giving Ephraim, Joseph's younger son, the blessing of the firstborn (Genesis 48:14).

On both sides, then, t'shuvah is demonstrated not so much by words as by deeds. Yet the Bible shows the importance of words by making them the bookends of the story: The brothers' first stage of doing t'shuvah was verbalizing their remorse to one another, and their verbal apology to Joseph brings this narrative to a close.

The theme of sin and repentance dominates the moving tale of Joseph and his brothers. It, in fact, makes this the only story in Genesis that has a satisfying resolution, comforting us at the end of the first biblical book. By contrast, in Parashat Vayishlach, Esau reconciles, at least on the surface, with his brother, Jacob, but each goes his own way, and Jacob never verbally apologizes to Esau, whom he has wronged.

As Everett Fox points out in his translation The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995, p. 173), "This is a story of how 'ill'-with all its connotations of fate, evil, and disaster-is changed to good." The whole story of Joseph is interpreted as God's will. But the crucial piece-the reconciliation itself-is brought about not by God but by human choice. Had Judah, as the family spokesman, not completed the cycle of t'shuvah, Joseph might never have forgiven his brothers, and the Israelites might have perished of hunger in Canaan.

Perhaps it is due to the merit of Judah's t'shuvah that his tribe survived to become the seat of the monarchy in Eretz Yisrael and the House of Israel became known for posterity as Y'hudim, Yidn, Jews.

By the Way

  • It is a flagrant sin to say to a repentant, "Remember your past actions" or to mention them in his presence so as to embarrass him. (Maimonides' Hilchot T'shuvah VII.8 from Mishneh Torah, edited by Philip Birnbaum, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1944, 1967, p. 43)

  • T'shuvah is dearer even than sacrifices. Samuel the prophet says: "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice…" (I Samuel 15:22). Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said: Whatever makes an animal ritually unfit makes a man ritually fit. The Torah declares ritually unfit that animal which is "blind or broken or maimed…" (Leviticus 22:22). But the Torah declares fit the man who has "a broken and a contrite heart" (Psalms 51:19). ( Midrash P'sikta Rabbati, ShuvahYisrael, quoted in The Days of Awe by S. Y. Agnon, New York: Schocken Books, p. 140)

  • 1.We admitted we were powerless over the problem…; 3. Decided to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a Power greater than ourselves; 4. Made a…fearless moral inventory of ourselves; 5. Admitted to ourselves and to another…the exact nature of our wrongs…; 9. Made direct amends to all persons we had harmed; 10. Continued to take personal inventory and promptly admit when we were wrong. (Adapted from the classic Twelve Steps to Addiction Recovery)

Your Guide

  1. Which of the ideas about t'shuvah in the texts above appear in Parashat Va-y'chi?
  2. The Twelve Steps to Addiction Recovery are essentially a path to t'shuvah. Like the daily prayers of repentance in our siddur, these steps are supposed to be followed on a daily and ongoing basis. In your opinion, how Jewish are they? How do they relate to the Joseph story?

Cantor Janet Leuchter is the cantor at the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, Dobbs Ferry, NY.

Originally published 12/21/2002
Sat, April 21 2018 6 Iyar 5778