On this, the last Shabbat of 2006, many of us are already turning our attention to next year, planning; thinking about what, if any, resolutions we might make for the new year. Knowing that some of our resolutions have appeared on previous years’ lists, we know all too well how easily we can forget or forego our best intentions when other things get in the way.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, teaches another lesson which is equally (if not more) worthy of a new years resolution. As the powerful viceroy of Egypt, Joseph is visited by his brothers, who have come in front of him. As we recall the story, many years before, Joseph's brothers, in an act of jealousy and cruelty, had thrown him in a pit and sold him into slavery. Once a slave, Joseph managed to win his freedom and became the viceroy of Egypt. Now, Joseph's brothers were in Egypt to buy food. They come before Joseph, who controlled all the supplies, but they didn't recognize him. As the bewildered brothers bowed before him, an emotional Joseph yells out: "I am Joseph, your brother, the one you sold as slave!"
Joseph's brothers were terrified. They thought: ‘We hurt him when we sold him into slavery and now he's going to hurt us back to get revenge.’ In fact, many Biblical commentators, including the Abrabanel, the Kli Yakar and others, say that Joseph wanted to get even. The entire drama was, they say, because he wanted revenge! They even go so far as to show what Joseph put his brothers through and what happened to his the brothers was a measure-for-measure punishment exacted upon them what they did to Joseph.
It would not be at all surprising to think Joseph might want revenge upon his brothers. After all, because of their actions, he was sold as a slave, ended up in a land far away, served time in prison, and spent many years in isolation from his beloved father, Jacob. The 13th century work, Sefer HaChinuch, in discussing each of the 613 commandments, explains the Leviticus command "do not take revenge" as a direct response to this human impulse. When one person wrongs another, the way of the world is to look for an opportunity to get back at the other person.
Yet, having revealed his identity, Joseph continues with a proclamation that demonstrates a very different and powerful impulse: “Now, do not be saddened, and do not be angry with yourselves that you sold me here; it was to save life that God has send 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.”
Rather than respond with anger or hatred, Joseph pleads with his brothers to let go of their own guilt and sadness, assuring them that what has happened to him has been part of God’s plan. Having had years to think about what has happened to him and to ponder how he might respond to his brothers, Joseph probably had many fantasies of how to make his brothers pay for their actions. Yet, in the end, he realizes that while the moment might seem sweet; it would not last. It would destroy his brothers and, in the end, destroy him as well. Still, it would not change what happened. It would not change what happened between his brothers and him. It would not change all that has happened since that time, much of which was actually good for him. And, it would not change the fact that his brothers are still his brothers. Any act of vengeance would only continue the cycle of hurt and destruction – for his brothers and for him. As Gandi once said: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’
So, yes, says Joseph, I am the brother whom you sold into slavery, and that fact remains. But, sadness and regret lead to revenge and that is the deepest pit of all. I am no longer in the pit. Instead, I am choosing to live in the future not in the past, to love despite the hurt, and to reconcile over the pain. My life has unfolded in a way that I could do God’s work. So, in the end, it’s not about me and it’s not about all of you, but about the goodness and blessing of the life we have been given.
Perhaps, as the Talmud infers, living well, is the greatest revenge of all! Perhaps, this is the resolution we should carry into 2007 – to find our own ways to transcend the impulse to hurt those who hurt us and to find the divinity in our lives and in all the ways that we live.