Vayigash: The Joy of Forgiveness (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

Vayigash: The Joy of Forgiveness (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“The time has come, the Walrus said,

to talk of many things….”

Lewis Carroll, 1872

In October of 1960, Pope John XXIII famously greeted a group of visiting Jewish leaders with these words: “I am Joseph, Your Brother”[1]. The Pope’s baptismal name was in reality Joseph, and his greeting echoed the words of the biblical Joseph as he revealed himself to his long-lost brothers. The words symbolize an act of mutual forgiveness that begins in Vayigash and resounds through the centuries (Genesis 45:4).

Vayigash is such a rich chapter. Every time I read a Torah portion, something that seems new attracts my attention. This time it is forgiveness. Of course, like the Walrus and the Carpenter in the allegorical children’s favorite, Alice Through The Looking-Glass, we could discuss many other amazing things contained in this portion. For example, we could discuss at length an elevated Joseph’s remarkable prowess as an “economic statesman…one of the earliest in history,” as Henry A. Wallace (a liberal progressive who was the 33rd Vice-President of the U.S. and unsuccessfully advocated universal healthcare) once called him. “Apparently he [the biblical Joseph] put the farmers on relief rolls,” Wallace said, “until the drought was over and then gave them back the use of their land for a very low rent….”  [2]. He credits Joseph with larger vision and with preparing for the whims of nature, something with which we are still coming to grips in California as I write this D’var Torah.

Also, while “tax reform” dominates our airwaves to considerable controversy as 2017 comes to a bombastic close, we recall that Joseph instituted a system of taxation (one-fifth – 20 percent of income — payable to the Pharaoh) considered reasonable in the ancient agricultural landscape of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Under Syrian rule, by contrast, “the Jews paid the king one-third of their seed and one-half of their fruits”[3].

We could discuss how Joseph was a great strategist and master planner, “who protected the surplus of the good years so that Egypt could survive during the lean ones,” as Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff discussed in his recent article for the Reform movement, “Does God Have a Plan?” [4]. In later life, after much adversity, Joseph learned to understand that his own free will could only operate within the big picture — the divine plan for the survival of humanity.

We could discuss, as Rabbi Anne Brener did so eloquently in her drash for AJRCA this week [5], the anxiety and grief of Joseph’s aged father, Jacob as he continued to mourn for the supposed death of his favored son, Joseph, and Jacob’s anxiety as he contemplated the possible loss of his much loved, youngest son, Benjamin. Or of Joseph’s own suppressed primal scream in the face of the reunion.

What particularly stands out for me at this year’s reading of Vayigash, however, is the depth of forgiveness that Joseph offers his brothers. In fact, this Torah portion contains “the first recorded moment of forgiveness in history,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Covenant and Conversation [6]. This is what Joseph says to them:

“I am your brother, Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me thither” (Genesis 45:4).

This is the same Joseph who, clad in multi-colored splendor, once dreamed of his brothers bowing down to him. Now, with the humility that denotes the spiritual growth he has since undergone, Joseph proceeds to explain to these same brothers that it was God’s will, not their own actions, that brought about the course of events that took him to Egypt as Pharaoh’s slave.  It was something far greater than the schemes of human beings, ironically including the free will to act that God had granted them.

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance [from famine and starvation]. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me [like] a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 45: 7-8).

This is how, without recrimination, Joseph forgave his brothers who had once cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery.  For repentance and then forgiveness to occur, as our rabbis often point out, three sequential stages are necessary: the admission of guilt, confession, and, finally, behavioral change. It was true in ancient Egypt, and it remains true now. Only when these stages of character change have taken place – and it takes time, often years — is someone capable of sincere teshuvah (repentance). “Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers,” Sacks explains.  “When we forgive and are worthy of others, we are no longer prisoners of our past” [7].

As we begin the new secular calendar year, 2018, maybe it is time for all of us – no matter what our various political or religious leanings — to forgive one another. And ourselves. In humility for our own shortcomings. Then, God willing, we can move forward into a bright future together.

Happy New Year – and Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, General Ed. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. David E. S. Stein (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005,2006),300.

[2] Ibid., 301.

[3] Ibid,  298. Unfortunately, sometimes historical memory is short and not at all grateful. As Rabbi Plaut describes, later on, new Pharaohs did not remember that Joseph’s sagacity had saved Egypt in a time of famine, and he enslaved the Jews:

“When not long after Joseph’s death the rulers (according to some, the Hyksos) were overthrown and a new kingdom was established, a Pharaoh ascended the throne ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). He had no use for associates of the previous dynasty and therefore took no time in enslaving them in the very land of Goshen to which they had come to make their home. The experience of Joseph was to be repeated through many centuries of Jewish history: As long as Jews were useful to the host country, they were tolerated and even elevated; but often when political circumstances changed, they were offered to the masses as convenient scapegoats.”

[4] Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, “Does God Have A Plan?” www., December 2017.

[5] Rabbi Anne Brener, “Joseph’s Primal Scream,” Vayigash,, December 2017.

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Birth of Forgiveness,” 5774,Covenant and Conversation,, retrieved December 2017.

[7] Ibid.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.