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December 25, 2014 1:45 am

The Story of Joseph and the Dawn of Forgiveness

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

Email a copy of "The Story of Joseph and the Dawn of Forgiveness" to a friend

Joseph as ruler of Egypt by O.A. Stemler.

There are moments that change the world: 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press (though the Chinese had developed it four centuries before), or 1821 when Faraday invented the electric motor, or 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. There is such a moment in this week’s parsha, and in its way it may have been no less transformative than any of the above. It happened when Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers. While they were silent and in a state of shock, he went on to say these words:

“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)

This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.

According to the Midrash, God had forgiven before this, but not according to the plain sense of the text. Forgiveness is conspicuously lacking as an element in the stories of the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and the cities of the plain. When Abraham prayed his audacious prayer for the people of Sodom, he did not ask God to forgive them. His argument was about justice not forgiveness. Perhaps there were innocent people there, fifty or even ten. It would be unjust for them to die. Their merit should therefore save the others, says Abraham. That is quite different from asking God to forgive.

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Joseph forgave. That was a first in history. Yet the Torah hints that the brothers did not fully appreciate the significance of his words. After all, he did not explicitly use the word ‘forgive.’ He told them not to be distressed. He said, ‘It was not you but God.’ He told them their act had resulted in a positive outcome. But all of this was theoretically compatible with holding them guilty and deserving of punishment. That is why the Torah recounts a second event, years later, after Jacob had died. The brothers sought a meeting with Joseph fearing that he would now take revenge. They concocted a story:

They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you toforgive your brothers for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. [Gen. 50: 16-18]

What they said was a white lie, but Joseph understood why they said it. The brothers used the word “forgive” – this is the first time it appears explicitly in the Torah – because they were still unsure about what Joseph meant. Does someone truly forgive those who sold him into slavery? Joseph wept that his brothers had not fully understood that he had forgiven them long before. He no longer felt ill-will toward them. He had no anger, no lingering resentment, no desire for revenge. He had conquered his emotions and reframed his understanding of events.

Forgiveness does not appear in every culture. It is not a human universal, nor is it a biological imperative. We know this from a fascinating study by American classicist David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea (2010). In it he argues that there was no concept of forgiveness in the literature of the ancient Greeks. There was something else, often mistaken for forgiveness. There is appeasement of anger.

When someone does harm to someone else, the victim is angry and seeks revenge. This is clearly dangerous for the perpetrator and he or she may try to get the victim to calm down and move on. They may make excuses: It wasn’t me, it was someone else. Or, it was me but I couldn’t help it. Or, it was me but it was a small wrong, and I have done you much good in the past, so on balance you should let it pass.

Alternatively, or in conjunction with these other strategies, the perpetrator may beg, plead, and perform some ritual of abasement or humiliation. This is a way of saying to the victim, “I am not really a threat.” The Greek word sugnome, sometimes translated as forgiveness, really means, says Konstan, exculpation or absolution. It is not that I forgive you for what you did, but that I understand why you did it – you could not really help it, you were caught up in circumstances beyond your control – or, alternatively, I do not need to take revenge because you have now shown by your deference to me that you hold me in proper respect. My dignity has been restored.

There is a classic example of appeasement in the Torah: Jacob’s behaviour toward Esau when they meet again after a long separation. Jacob had fled home after Rebekah overheard Esau resolving to kill him after Isaac’s death (Gen. 27: 41). Prior to the meeting Jacob sends him a huge gift of cattle, saying “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” (Gen. 32: 21). When the brothers meet, Jacob bows down to Esau seven times, a classic abasement ritual. The brothers meet, kiss, embrace, and go their separate ways, but not because Esau has forgiven Jacob but because either he has forgotten or he has been placated.

Appeasement as a form of conflict management exists even among non-humans. Frans de Waal, the primatologist, has described peacemaking rituals among chimpanzees, bonobos and mountain gorillas. There are contests for dominance among the social animals, but there must also be ways of restoring harmony to the group if it is to survive at all. So there are forms of appeasement and peacemaking that are pre-moral and have existed since the birth of humanity.

Forgiveness has not. Konstan argues that its first appearance is in the Hebrew Bible and he cites the case of Joseph. What he does not make clear is why Joseph forgives, and why the idea and institution are born specifically within Judaism.

The answer is that within Judaism a new form of morality was born. Judaism is (primarily) an ethic of guilt, as opposed to most other systems, which are ethics of shame. One of the fundamental differences between them is that shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. In shame cultures when a person does wrong he or she is, as it were, stained, marked, defiled. In guilt cultures what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin. The person retains his or her fundamental worth (“the soul you gave me is pure,” as we say in our prayers). It is the act that has somehow to be put right. That is why in guilt cultures there are processes of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

That is the explanation for Joseph’s behaviour from the moment the brothers appear before him in Egypt for the first time to the point where, in this week’s parsha, he announces his identity and forgives his brothers. It is a textbook case of putting the brothers through a course in atonement, the first in literature. Joseph is thus teaching them, and the Torah is teaching us, what it is to earn forgiveness.

Recall what happens. First he accuses the brothers of a crime they have not committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. In other words, he is forcing them to re-enact that earlier occasion when they came back to their father with one of the brothers, Joseph, missing. Note what happens next:

They said to one another, “Surely we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. [Gen. 42: 21-23]

This is the first stage of repentance. They admit they have done wrong.

Next, after the second meeting, Joseph has his special silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. It is found and the brothers are brought back. They are told that Benjamin must stay as a slave.

“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” [Gen. 44: 16]

This is the second stage of repentance. They confess. They do more: they admit collective responsibility. This is important. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery it was Judah who proposed the crime (37: 26-27), but they were all (except Reuben) complicit in it.

Finally, at the climax of the story Judah himself says “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers!” (42: 33). Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to become a slave so that his brother Benjamin can go free. This is what the sages and Maimonides define as complete repentance, namely when circumstances repeat themselves and you have an opportunity to commit the same crime again, but you refrain from doing so because you have changed.

Now Joseph can forgive, because his brothers, led by Judah, have gone through all three stages of repentance: [1] admission of guilt, [2] confession, and [3] behavioural change.

Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognise that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation simply did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. Greece was a shame-and-honour culture that turned on the twin concepts of character and fate.

Judaism was a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are will and choice. The idea of forgiveness was then adopted by Christianity, making the Judeo-Christian ethic the primary vehicle of forgiveness in history.

Repentance and forgiveness are not just two ideas among many. They transformed the human situation. For the first time, repentance established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. Forgiveness liberates us from the past. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. It is the undoing of what has been done.

Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.

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  • Chetak

    My thought here is that it’s possible Joseph did not forgive his brothers because there was nothing to forgive. As it turned out, GOD’s plan was in motion all along. Looking at it as he did, everything was perfect and right. So, what’s to forgive?

  • DACON9

    RABBI, ARE YOU ASKING THE JEWS TO FORGIVE THE XTIANS FOR THE 2000 YEARS OF TORTURE THAT THE DO NOT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR?
    Are you asking us to forgive the xtians for destroying the worlds of jewish families that are lost forever?
    Are you asking us jews to forgive the xtians for not returning the Jews the xtians ”took” for safe keeping but refusing to return them and refusing to give the list of names from ww11?
    Are you asking us Jews tio forgive them for the inquisitions?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive them for the crusades?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive them for burning Rabbi Akiva alive?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for burning the simple Jews alive?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive them for burning hundreds of years of burning our manuscripts?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for tortures tearing our limbs apart alive?
    Are you asking us to forgive the xtians for the holocaust?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for forced convertions to biow and accept their dead mangods?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for 2000 years of oppression closing doors to most occupations preventing a livlihood.
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for missionizing proslytizing witnissing to Jews today deceiving abusing brainwashing the innocent the ill the informed the weak the sick the elderly just today even at this very moment?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for building churches dressing them to look like synagogues their priests to look like rabbis right next door to yeshivot seducing tricking young boys and girls to ”come inside let us learn and have lunch with us before you go back to class’?
    TODAY, HAPPENING TODAY RIGHT NOW!!!
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtian vatican poop for never using the word ‘ISRAEL’ but calling it the holy land because saying ISRAEL goes against their xtian doctrine that ISRAEL will never exist again because ‘we xtians’ are the new jews?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for many many votes against ISRAEL?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for the gifts they send to ISRAEL with crosses and bibles and CDs inside packages?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for the money they give so they use it as an advertising tool to convert JEWS?
    Are you asking us Jews to forgive the xtians for the thousands of YOUNG JEWISH ISRAELIS converted through their evil deceptive tactics?

    FORGIVE?
    YOU KNOW BETTER THEN ME WHAT OUR PROPHETS SAID ABOUT THEIR EVIL AND WHAT THEIR END WILL BE.
    tHE INTERIM WILL NOT PERMIT ME TO FORGIVE THEM NOT AN IOTA.
    I WILL REMIND EVERYONE OF THE EVIL THAT COMES FROM THEM
    TO THIS DAY AND THIS VERY MINUTE.
    I WILL REMIND EVERYONE OF THE ASTONISHMENT ISAIAH WILL HAD WHEN HE SAW THE FUTURE DESTRUCTION OF EDOM

    RABBI SACKS: WHAT RABBI WAS IN IN 1920 I BELIEVE THAT WAS ON A TOUR OF THE KIBBUTZ AND SAID “ITS TERRIBLE AND NOT WONDERFUL BECAUSE ‘I WOULD RATHER DIE A PHYSICAL DEATH AS A JEW THEN LIKE THIS A SPIRITUAL DEATH.

    The xtians are killing us Jews spiritually and today the Jews are following the guiltless sins of edom into the ovens willingly.

    WHAT IS “YOUR MESSEGE TO ME RABBI SACKS?”
    TELL ME ABOUT THE INTERFAITH DINNERS AND INTERFAITH WEDDINGS AND INTERFAITH PARTIES AND INTERFAITH FAMILIES
    A RESULT OF LOVE TOLERANCE ACCEPTANCE OF IGNORANT JEWS LETTING THEIR GAURD DOWN TO SHOW HOW WARM AND FRIENDLY WE JEWS CAN BE …..TOWARDS OUR KILLERS….
    I AM SPEAKING NOT THE PAST….
    what the xtians did in the past is now refined and transformed in different methods to wipe us JEWS out and replacing us or converting us TODAY TODAY TODAY AT THIS MOMENT.
    PEOPLES MINISTRIES BROOKLYN NY NEXT TO HAYM BERLIN
    CONEY ISLAND AVE AND THEY SAID WE WILL GROW AND OPEN MORE MINITRIES NEXT TO ALL THE YESHIVAS ALL OVER THE WORLD…AND THE MISSIONARY ATTACKS YEARS AGO AND TODAY IN THE RUSSIAN COMMUNITIES
    AND THE COUNTERFIET SIDDURIM THEY PRINTED INSERTING PRAYERS IN HEBREW TO THEIR DEADMANGOD leaving it in our shuls because as you know we dont carry our own on shabbat so they know this and leave it on the front table for us to innocently pick up and use.
    and the tallit they give out at the kotel with prays to their dadman on the neck band….
    MY LIST GROWS AS I TYPE RABBI SACKS……
    ALWAYS REMEMBER
    ALWAYS REMEMBER
    ALWAYS REMEMBER
    TO DIE SPIRITUALLY IS THE WORST POSSIBLE DEATH

    • Chetak

      Wow. How does one who follows Torah reply to such blind hatred. Change the focus and his words could come from a leader of the nazi party. Torah teachers life and he speaks of death. And those a who are focused upon death are dead.

    • Ya’aqob

      See—–http://outreachjudaism.org/evangelizing-the-jews/

      to better see the DECEPTIVE PLAN to convert the Jews to the idolatrous Christianity !

  • David Peters

    The Chinese invented block printing: one for each ideogram (5000 word basic vocabulary = 5000 blocks.)
    Gutenberg need only enough blocks for each letter, approximately 30 for German (26 + 3 umlauted vowels and the ess-tset).
    It was only with the advent of computerized ideogram composers where each stroke was ‘written’ with a key press that Chinese could be efficiently written for printing.
    Since word of the Chinese method was not known in the West, Gutenberg’s invention was essentially a parallel development. To make specific mention of the earlier invention was a cheap shot.
    Does Lord Sacks wish to acknowledge that it was a Venetian (gentile) printer who developed Hebrew printing methods with the now-standard version of the Masoretic vowels?

  • Joseph lawrence

    I like this article
    Very informative, scholarly and inspiring
    New thoughts and creative interpritation
    Thanks

  • Julian Clovelley

    When I read through this article something worried me and it was the words “This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.”

    Hang on this isn’t history, it is legend. By the time it was recorded in writing forgiveness existed as a theme in other legends worldwide – including Aboriginal legend going back tens of thousands of years.

    The only real claim that can be made is that this was the first occasion that a story of one person forgiving another was written down. But then one might explore the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings and the writings of the far East and come to a very different conclusion. Chinese has had written characters for forgiveness, of various kinds, for thousands of years.

    I agree with the writer’s assertion that “When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past,” but to credit that historically to “Joseph”, of whom we know nothing “historical” at all, is not reasonable. Come off it!

    Forgiveness may well help free us from being prisoners of the past – but even that, as a liberating mechanism, pales before the act of recognising mythology and not allowing it to dominate our lives, our politics, our economics, and our sense of what is right and just – and who has a right to inherit and who only fit to be dispossessed…

    When one looks at the whole worldview of religion, rather than cherry picks the nice bits, one is forced, in my opinion, to acknowledge that the one thing religion as a whole certainly is not, is “forgiving”

    • Chetak

      “To see GOD is the beginning of Wisdom.” If you truly believe Torah is myth then you are truly blind.

      • Julian Clovelley

        Well Chetak lets start with Chapter one – The creation stories are obvious legend having no foundation in scientific reality. The idea of Adam and Eve is logically ludicrous and the Bible neatly glosses over the questions of sexual partnerships. If there was only Adam and Eve where did the partners come from that their children interbred with? – and so on. Talking snakes with legs indeed!

        But that is just the beginning of the problem. The idea of the floating rescue boat full of animals, again is an entry into a ridiculous universe. An Australian would ask you “where are the kangaroo bones in Europe? – or were our fauna excluded?” and if the Rainbow is a D-vine symbol, what happened to light refracted through raindrops in the billiions of years prior?

        It is just one obvious legend after another, without a shred of archaeological or geological evidence. This includes the supposed lives of the alleged Patriarchs. Do I believe the “Sacrifice of Abraham” story or the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, do I believe that language originated in a D-vine objection to building an ancient skyscraper, the remains of which do not exist ? – of course not

        Do I think the events of Exodus were real events – that hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves up and left Egypt after a succession of plagues, led by a man who had received his appointment as leader of his people by talking to a tree? I don’t think so. And so it goes on page after page.

        It is such obvious use of legend to justify a law code and an administrative structure. It contains within it legends that to this day are used to justify land claims. No I am sorry, Chetak, to me it is indeed myth – all of it – every jot and tittle. It cannot be anything else without all embracing historical and archaeological confirmation. Like it or not I am stuck with the fact that the stories at best were written down about a thousand years after the supposed events, and in reality are contemporary legends from arond the sixth to eighth century BCE – forty generations of playing Chinese Whispers, and bardic invention, is the best on offer – the alternative would be contemporay invention.

        The moral principles that appear in these books must be able to stand alone to be of value, and require modern justification, and not the reversion to myth that all too often happens. Legends never reflect real behaviour – people neither talk nor behave the way fictional characters behave in legends. Seas don’t part, city walls do not fall down by wandering around them in circles and blowing trumpets – and with the greatest respect Heavenly beings don’t selectively kill children on the basis of whether door frames are covered in lambs blood or not

        We are right to preserve our cultural fictions especially when they contain our moral priciples. But let’s not forget that they are fiction and as such triumphs of a very human consciousness.

        For someone of Christian background these are matters that concern his own birth religion. I am writing from such a background – and I’d like you to remember that. These legends, taken as real events, continue to inspire a theological Fascism based on Creationism and Fundamentalism that to me ruins the world I live in

        Moving on Chetak… Moving on… Peace and an end to the backwardness that underlies all violence!

  • Excellent!

    Joseph was truly chosen, called, anointed and greatly used by the G-D of Abraham,Isaac and Jacob…

    Always an inspiration to reflect on his life, forgiveness and godly example-especially today!

    Shalom & may G-D Bless you richly in all things.

    A christian believer in Yeshua,
    Ed

  • Where is the “Forgiveness” from the”other nations”and what has it done for us?

    • Julian Clovelley

      Who’s “us”

      Just asking. Im. British – Whe we speak of people we are partially descended from just over a hundred years ago we don’t speak of “us” We speak of the “Victorians” or of our Great Grandparent’s generation – but not “us”

      So what are the misdeeds you refer to for which you seek forgiveness? – and why not just stop committing the sins?

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Could it be that Israel has yet to find salvation because too much emphasis is put on shaming the public for its being not compassionate, merciful, and accepting enough of its minority populations as well as its religious diversity and Israel’s inadequate feelings of guilt for its too few deeds of accepting cultural and religious differences in its composite populations both Jewish and otherwise?

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