“Joseph Sold Into Egypt” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Joseph Sold Into Egypt” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Try some forgiveness — ‘a grace too powerful to name’

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 44:18–47:27

There is a moment in the musical “Hamilton” that pierces my heart. Fortune, and Alexander Hamilton’s tragic choices, have brought calamitous consequences to his family, and he begs his wife, Eliza, for forgiveness. “He is trying to do the unimaginable,” the cast sings.

When Eliza takes Alexander’s hand, in a breathtakingly tender gesture, her sister defines the pardon Eliza grants and the love she gives as “a grace too powerful to name.”

The first recorded act of forgiveness in Biblical history appears this week, as Joseph’s brothers stand before him. Joseph has tested them in an elaborately choreographed scheme to determine whether they have truly changed since that fateful day they almost murdered “the Dreamer.”

With Judah’s impassioned plea and excruciating description of Jacob’s torment since Joseph’s disappearance, Joseph weeps loudly, composing himself. He can then reveal himself to his speechless brothers and offer bountiful absolution — “a grace too powerful to name.”

“When they approached, he said: I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither — it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you … God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (Genesis 45:4-7)

Joseph’s exoneration of his brothers is a stunning and entirely new display of magnanimity and maturity in the Torah. He does not let them forget their transgression, but he does not play the victim. He has chosen the path of compassion and mercy, and sees a Grand Design in the unfolding of his life’s story despite, or perhaps because of, the terrible wrongs done to him years before.

Have you ever granted, or been granted, this kind of forgiveness?

Do you yearn for it from someone you have wronged? Could you imagine asking for such a pardon? Do you still ache from a wrong done to you, for which forgiveness has never been asked? What would you do if you received a sincere plea for forgiveness? Could you let go of the hurt?

Forgiveness is absolutely essential for a functioning and evolving society, but it can be painfully elusive. People often nurture grudges and resentments for years, or lifetimes, believing that to forgive would condone injustice and evil. Pride and shame inhibit too many who need desperately to seek pardon and do the work of repair. Stalemate, or worse, sets in.

Abraham Thomas, an engineer who studies the workings of the human brain, writes wisely about the pathways to forgiveness: “Forgiveness stills resentment and guilt, and places common sense in control. Forgiveness towards others discards petty resentment and enables fair judgment. Forgiveness towards oneself frees the mind from the debilitating pain of guilt. Resentment and guilt resemble the futile actions of a bird flailing against a cage — unhealthy yelps and squeals of the primitive regions of the brain against unacceptable situations.

“Forgiveness quiets those regions. It is a process which accepts the offensive situation, making way for the calm responses of wiser regions of the brain. While it does not imply acceptance of evil, forgiveness accepts reality and strengthens the mind to move forward.”

Joseph’s exoneration of his brothers is precisely this!

He quiets the clamor for vengeance, demonstrates compassionate empathy while not sanctioning evil, and embraces the healing potential of forgiveness. He is calm after an emotional storm, speaks firmly but with benevolence, finds meaning and larger truths in tragedy and rises above it all.

Vayigash means “and he approached.” It’s used three times in the portion: as Judah approaches Joseph, Joseph invites his brothers to approach and they approach.

Bridging the divide rarely happens easily or at once, the Torah implies. This is hard work.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin gives voice to one of my most fervent prayers, that Jews might yet find a way to live by the values of Vayigash: “When Jews criticize Jews of other denominations, or debate politics, Israel, theological or even ethical issues, we need to do it in a way that reflects respect and love for each other. We have to find ways of eating in each other’s homes, of praying in each other’s synagogues and attending each other’s diverse joyous moments — or sad moments. We must maintain our own integrity as Judahs or Josephs, but we must also approach/vayigash to seek unity and partnership.”

In the Haftarah, the prophet Ezekiel envisions the staffs of Judah and Joseph entwining to symbolize one multifaceted people, reconciled with each other and their Creator in a brit shalom, a covenant of friendship. Only when we have peace within ourselves can we have peace with each other. Only when we have peace with each other can we have peace with our neighbors and with the world. And only when forgiveness — the “grace too powerful to name” — is given a chance, will the light of a new era dawn.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].