VaYechi - 5780
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Remember the Hatfields and the McCoys? Their blood-feud lasted far beyond the point where anyone even remembered how it started, driven by family honor and pride. It had to begin with a slight, intentional or not. Because family honor has been “stained”, an act of revenge was required. This, in turn, led to a retaliation for the other family’s honor, and so on. Regardless of who is involved, this kind of cycle, once started, intensifies with each tit for tat, and is virtually impossible to end.
The blood feud is a distinctive element of what is commonly called a shame-based culture. In shame-based cultures wrongful acts lead to public shame and become permanent stains on us and our families/clans/nations. In this setting, unforgiving responses to shameful acts are often the only way honor can be restored. Much of the world is organized according to shame-based cultural frames. Just open a newspaper – the examples abound.
It should be no surprise that Jewish culture not shame-based, but guilt-based. There is nothing like Jewish guilt! In a guilt-based culture, when a wrong is committed, the focus is on the damaging behavior or act, rather than on permanently shaming the perpetrator. In other words, while a shame-based culture requires revenge, a guilt-based culture seeks responsibility, restitution and forgiveness.
In this week’s parasha, we find an extraordinary example of forgiveness. Jacob dies at a ripe old age in Egypt, leaving all of his children behind. Since they are in Egypt, and since Joseph is the power behind the throne, the brothers become worried that Joseph will seek revenge against them. In a shame-based culture, he would be well within his rights, and may have simply been waiting for their father to die (out of respect) before taking action.
Soon after Jacob’s death, the brothers send a message to Joseph, saying:
“Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers 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.” [Gen. 50:16]
How does Joseph respond? By reminding them of what he already said:
“Don’t be afraid,” said Joseph, “Am I in place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” [Gen. 50-19-20]
Rabbi Jonathan Saks teaches that this great act of forgiveness is the bookend to one of the very first stories in Genesis: the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. He notes that the theme of sibling rivalry is repeated through many generations: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and finally, Joseph and his brothers. The cycle which originally led to an act fratricide, could only be resolved in the end by an act of powerful forgiveness. Joseph breaks the cycle as Genesis comes to its end. Permanently.
Rabbi Saks writes:
“Can brothers live peaceably with one another? This question is fundamental to the biblical drama of redemption, for if brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive?”
Redemption and freedom, the primary themes of the rest of Torah, can only happen once we learn to reconcile our differences.
Perhaps a little guilt isn’t such a bad thing after all.