11 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 13-14, 2013
This week’s portion, Vayechi, marks the end of the book of Genesis. We first find Jacob about to pass away, and note that he still hasn’t learned his lesson about the issues that come with playing favorites, as he adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, ensuring that each gets an equal share of his inheritance with his trueborn sons. He then gathers all of his sons together in order to share with them some insights he has about their futures. Needless to say, some of his words are pretty harsh. After delivering them, he passes away, is mourned throughout Egypt (due to his relationship to Joseph), and his sons collectively travel back to Canaan in order to bury him in the family burial place.
With Jacob having passed away, Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph would finally punish them for having sold him into slavery so many years before, and bow down to him begging for his mercy (again – 17 years after having settled in Egypt together). Joseph assures them, again, that their actions were part of a broader Divine plan, and that they have no reason to fear him.
At the end of the portion, Joseph makes his family promise that when the time comes, they will bring his bones back to Canaan, as they did his father’s. He then passes away at the age of 110.
There are so many real, raw emotions that we find in this portion, and we continue to see modeled challenging Biblical relationship situations often present in our own lives. It is not at all uncommon for families today to have a patriarch (or matriarch), in this case Jacob, serving as the “glue” that holds a family together. Just as Joseph’s brothers were afraid of a potential changed relationship when their father passed away, so too do many contemporary families crumble when siblings no longer have a shared love of their parent(s) to keep them from fighting with one another. Putting aside fights over who benefits from a parent’s estate (which unfortunately are all too common), sometimes siblings are so different from and have so little love for one another, that once their parents are gone, they perceive no further reason to interact and simply go their separate ways.
I can’t help but wonder what the interactions between Joseph and his brothers must have been like during their 17 years of living in Egypt together. Perhaps their relationship was so lukewarm – a farce being put on for the sake of Jacob -- that the brothers had every right to be afraid that Joseph was ultimately going to be vengeful. Needless to say, Joseph, as Egypt’s #2 head honcho, could very easily have belatedly punished his brothers for their past actions, knowing that his father was no longer around.
And yet, despite their long and complicated history, and despite his position of power, Joseph assures his brothers that they have nothing to fear. Even if we read between the lines to suggest that perhaps 17 years prior, Joseph forgave his brothers but still harbored some resentment towards them, we can know for certain now, 17 years later, that he has forgiven them for the way they treated him.
What’s the lesson we can learn from this interaction between Joseph and his brothers?
Forgiveness takes time. Even when we forgive someone (or say “I forgive you”) shortly after an incident takes place, we haven’t necessarily gotten to a place where we’re ready or willing to truly put what we perceive as the other’s shortcomings behind us. Even after forgiving another, it’s possible that the way we interact with and treat them may not be ideal, and will create lingering doubts in their minds (as it did in Joseph’s brothers). Some wounds will forever leave scars – although with time, they usually become less and less visible, slowly fading away. So too, forgiveness takes time.
This Shabbat, reflect on your family. Who is your family’s glue? How can you enhance your relationship with other members of your family?
Also, meditate on the theme of forgiveness, and don’t beat yourself up if there are folks in your life who you have forgiven in word, but whose prior actions still trouble you. Examine the ways in which you interact with such folks, to make sure you aren’t putting off a negative vibe, despite having “forgiven” them. Be comforted by the fact that true forgiveness takes time.