Thursday, December 29, 2011

Grudge match?


5 Tevet 5772 / December 30-31, 2011

“I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” – Genesis 45:3

In this week’s portion, Vayigash, we have the big reveal. Joseph, moved by his brother Judah’s desire to serve as Joseph’s slave in place of Benjamin (Joseph’s goblet was placed in Benjamin’s backpack in order to frame him), orders his Egyptian entourage out of the room and tells his brothers who he really is. They are speechless until he assures them that he is not angry with them – rather, his being sold into slavery was part of a divine plan that allowed him to be in a position to later save everyone from certain starvation.

Joseph’s first question to his brothers upon the reveal is, “Is my father still well?”

This question, frankly, poses quite a few challenges.

Joseph is the #2 most powerful person in all of Egypt – only Pharaoh is more powerful. Joseph has chariots, food aplenty, servants, etc., and by the time his brothers come to see him, Joseph has been in his position as Pharaoh’s #2 for about 9 years, and hasn’t seen his father in over 20 years.

If Joseph really cared about his father Jacob’s wellbeing, why didn’t he go home to visit once he had attained such stature?

Why didn’t he send messengers to let his father know that he was alive and well?

It seems possible that Joseph held a grudge against his father, as he may have resented his father Jacob’s favoritism due to said favoritism making his brothers despise him. As a result, perhaps Joseph chose to not contact Jacob in order to “teach him a lesson,” consciously causing his father pain. So too may Joseph’s requirement that the brothers bring Benjamin to him in Egypt have been as a result of Joseph wanting to cause Jacob separation anxiety from his new favorite son.

Grudge holding is something that we all do. Sometimes we do it consciously, and other times subconsciously. For example, I know that there are times when I personally have been tempted to “give someone the silent treatment” due to holding a grudge, despite knowing from personal experience how painful it is to be ignored.

The Torah states in Leviticus 19:18 that “you shall not take vengeance, and shall not bear any grudge against the members of your people.”

While one might argue that the Jewish tradition makes it clear that sometimes grudge holding is permissible – e.g. when someone murders a member of your family – the Talmud, in Yoma 23a, argues that not holding grudges, as expressed in the Leviticus quote above, refers to monetary matters (understood as non-capital offenses).

Joseph’s actions, or lack thereof, seem to be focused on taking vengeance due to harboring a grudge against his father. The result is that Joseph spends significantly less time with his father and family than he otherwise could have, with the two of them being apart for over 20 years, and Jacob dying a mere 17 years after coming down to Egypt.

Life is too short to punish those we love for their misdeeds by holding grudges against them.

This Shabbat, reflect on those whom you might be holding grudges against, and seek to forgive. Recognize that while it is human nature to hold grudges, our Jewish tradition makes it clear that holding grudges is something we strive to avoid. Acknowledge that the time we have in this world is short, and to spend it angry with others is not the best use of our time.

1 comment:

  1. Also of note that he says "is MY father still well", as opposed to "is OUR father still well", my guess there's still a grudge against his "brothers" too!