In this week`s parsha we read the dramatic story of Joseph who is now Viceroy of Egypt meeting his brethren after 22 years of separation.
The brothers do not recognize Joseph and when he accuses them of espionage they are overcome by trepidation. They immediately attribute their troubles to the heinous sin that they committed so long ago when they sold Joseph into slavery. In voices full of torment, they cry out, “Aval”–”Indeed”,, we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed; that is why this trouble has befallen us” (Genesis, 42-21) The brothers could of course, have ascribed Joseph`s accusation to the whim of a mad Egyptian despot, but herein lies their greatness. Instead of shifting blame, they searched their souls and looked within themselves.
We can appreciate the depth of their self-scrutiny through an examination of the Hebrew word “aval”–”indeed” which has a double meaning. It can also be translated as “but” At first glance, these disparate words appear contradictory. The Torah however, is teaching us a profound lesson. Most people, when explaining themselves, prefer to use the word “aval” as “but” to justify their negative behavior. They readily concede that their conduct was incorrect, but then they go on to say “But, there were mitigating circumstances beyond their control,” thus rationalizing their deed and giving themselves license to continue to follow the same ill begotten path.
The brothers–the tribal patriarchs of the Jewish people, taught us how to repent, how to shed our bad habits and improve our character traits. They use the word “aval” not as “but” (a loophole), but rather as “indeed,” meaning, “Yes indeed” we have sinned, we are accountable–and thus they showed the path of repentance for all generations.
On Yom Kippur, when we confess, we repeat these very words–”Aval anachnu chatanu…”–”Indeed, We have sinned–no ifs ands or buts.” Our sin came about because we used the word “aval” as a rationalization to justify our misbehavior. So when people say, “I know I did such and such, “but”, they give themselves license to continue along the same corrupt path. The brothers however, reversed all that and confessed without excuses–”Indeed, we have sinned.” To make such a confession is very painful and because of that, most people shy away from it. It`s so much more convenient to blame others and circumstances, but if we are to change, if we are to grow spiritually, we must find the courage for honest introspection, as agonizing as that may be.
Most of us are good and decent people. It is the excuses that we make with “but” that allow us to stray from the path. We have a choice…we can emulate the tribal patriarchs by saying “Indeed,”–grow, change and realize our potential, or we can indulge ourselves with “but” and sink into our weaknesses. It all depends on us.
THE ART OF FORGIVENESS
The awesome saga of Joseph continues. Of all the tribal patriarchs, it was Joseph alone who was called “Tzaddik “- righteous and holy. You might ask what were the character traits that earned him this noble title. In this week’s parsha, as in that of last week, and the ensuing weeks, we encounter Joseph’s greatness through small happenings which, upon scrutiny, prove to be not so small at all.
There is famine in the land of Canaan, and Joseph’s brethren come to Egypt to purchase food supplies. Joseph has risen to the position of Viceroy and the brothers are brought into his presence. Although many years have passed, Joseph recognizes them immediately, but they do not recognize him, and they bow down reverently before him.
Joseph now sees the fulfillment of the prophecy that he beheld in his dreams so long ago–that his brethren would prostrate themselves before him. One would imagine that this would have been the perfect moment for Joseph to reveal himself to the brothers who betrayed him and sold him into slavery. It would have been logical for him to say, “I am Joseph whom you mocked and abused. I am Joseph whose dreams you ridiculed, and here you are in fulfillment of my dream.” Instead of reveling in such sweet revenge, the Torah states: “Joseph saw his brethren; he recognized them; but he acted as a stranger toward them (Genesis 42.7).
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Berdichiver Rebbe, said that Joseph did not make himself known at this point because he did not want his brothers to experience the anguish that is the lot of those who have to confront the tragic error of their ways. Although Joseph had undergone much suffering because of his brethren, now that he had the upper hand, he was careful not to bring shame upon them. A lesser person would have seized the opportunity to tell it like it is, to inflict some of the hurt that he had experienced on those who had hurt him. But Yosef was Tzaddik. He went out of his way to shield his brethren from pain and embarrassment. When Joseph did reveal his identity (which we find in next week’s parsha), he assures his brothers that all that had transpired was for the good, directed by G-d Himself. Therefore, they should not agonize or blame themselves in any way, for it was all basherte–meant to be.
We can all learn from the example of Joseph. There are of course people who will argue that they are not on the level of Joseph–they cannot forgive the hurts that were inflicted upon them. To be sure, none of us are on the level of Joseph, but we can certainly try to emulate him–and to help us along the way, let’s try to weigh the benefits of forgiveness versus the benefits of harboring anger.
Anger begets more anger–the war continues until the anger consumes us and literally chews us up. On the other hand, through peace, we gain inner serenity. We acquire new friends and our family circle expands. But best of all, if G-d sees that we forgive each other, then G-d will forgive us as well, so let’s try to follow in the path of Joseph. It’s the high road of forgiveness that befits our Jewish people.