By: Rabbi Melanie Aron, Congregation
, Los Gatos, California
Lifting the Burden of Unforgiven Pain
Anachronistically, I sometimes imagine Joseph in therapy, deciding that his family is too toxic and that he is better off not being in touch with them. After all we have to wonder how the man, who is second in command to Pharaoh and about whom it is said, ”w
ithout you no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt
,” (Genesis 41:44) is not able to get a message to his devoted father. We know that Joseph is still emotionally tied to his family; he names his first born “Manasseh, meaning, “
God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home
”.” (Genesis 41:51) Clearly, the hardship and longing for home were not so completely forgotten.
In this week’s Parshah
, Joseph forgives his brothers. Knowing so many families which are permanently divided for much less cause, we have to wonder what makes that forgiveness possible. At some level it seems unbelievable that such a great wrong could be forgiven. The Torah itself provides evidence that Joseph’s brothers don’t really have confidence that Joseph doesn’t bear a grudge against them. Immediately after Jacob’s death, they send word 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
”.” (Genesis 50:15-16) The puzzling thing is that we have no evidence that Jacob ever knew what really happened, nor that he spoke to his sons in this way.
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Joseph breaks down immediately after Judah pleads: “
For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father
.” (Genesis 44:34) What is it that triggers Joseph’s tears?
Some explain Joseph’s outburst and subsequent forgiveness as a response to Judah’s passing the test that Joseph has carefully structured for his brothers. Joseph wants to know if they have truly repented the evil they did to him, and creates an analogous situation with Rachel’s second son, to see if they will act differently this time.
Other commentators focus on Joseph’s relationship with his father. Until this moment Joseph thinks his father, knowing what happened to him, took no step to rescue him from slavery. Now he understands that his father was in the dark about his having been sold down to Egypt and thought he was dead. With that knowledge Joseph is able to forgive his father for the great hurt that has weighed on him since he was 17 years old. According to this explanation, forgiving his brothers was not so difficult after his anger against his father melted away.
Finally we have the evidence of Joseph’s own explanation that he has come to understand the events in his life in a different way, to reframe his experiences: “
God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. It was not you who sent me here, but God
.” (Genesis 45:7-8) To me it is interesting that this parallels the process that Dr. Fred Luskin outlines in his book,
Forgive for Good
. Dr. Lushkin, who has worked with victims of religious violence from Northern Ireland as well as those who have suffered more mundane hurts, urges us to rewrite our life stories, so that we can move from victims to heroes. Rewriting our story does not mean that we don’t still believe that wrong has been done, but it changes our focus and it is possible no matter what the circumstances. He notes that even though it could be true that our parents were rotten to us in 1978, that doesn’t have to mean that we will feel upset in 2002. Even when the most tragic things happen to us, we still get to decide how much power that wrong will have over our lives. When a woman who was injured as a pedestrian in a hit and run accident began to tell her life story, not as a victim of someone else’s actions but as a story of her own struggle to be there for her children, the focus of her life changed. Even those who had lost children to terrorism during the troubles in Ireland found a decrease in the hurt they felt and in their depression based on forgiveness training, and this change endured. Lushkin explains: “
Each of us can learn to deal with our wounds and our hurt…We do not have to tell endless stories of victimization…We can create a story that shows us as a hero instead of a victim.
Forgive for Good
, page 43).
Similarly, Solomon Schimmel, in his book
Wounds not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness
, talks about the power of reframing, something that Joseph did so successfully. Schimmel notes: “
Viewing them (his hurts) with a panoramic lens may make it easier to forgive them
Wounds Not Healed by Time
, pg. 93).
The rabbis teach, ”
ma’aseh avot siman lebanim
” meaning that the events in the lives of our forefathers are meant as a sign for future generations. They can also be guideposts for our own personal lives. From Joseph we can learn that true repentance should call forth a forgiving response. We can consider whether the targets of our anger are the true sources of our pain, or if like Joseph we have deflected the pain of one disappointment, in this case, his beloved father’s failure to seek him out, onto others. Finally, we can, like Joseph, come to reframe the story of our lives with a broader focus, seeing our contribution to the lives of others as having significant weight. Lifting the burden of unforgiven pain, can help us move towards a better future.