More than Saying Sorry
by Miri Korbman
Forgiveness is both a powerful tool and complicated enterprise in promoting interpersonal connection and psychological wellbeing. Step eight of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps encourages individuals to make a list of all the people they have harmed and to seek to make amends, with both granting and seeking forgiveness at the heart of this integral rung on the ladder of sobriety and mental health. Psychologists who have studied relationships recognize the importance of forgiveness in allowing for reconciliation and growth in partnerships and families. And though there are times when allowing oneself the permission not to forgive someone for abuse they’ve perpetrated can be what is best and most healing for a victim of trauma, research shows that traumatized individuals often experience a sense of liberation and a significant decrease in depression and traumatic stress through forgiving those who hurt them.
In Jewish ideology, forgiveness is a fundamental component of healthy spiritual functioning, whether between man and himself, man and his fellow, or man and God. We focus on forgiveness throughout the month of Elul and the High Holidays, we seek forgiveness from the deceased at funerals, and we ask for forgiveness for our sins on a daily basis in our prayers. Forgiveness can be the key to spiritual, emotional, and interpersonal freedom - but it is by no means an easy power to wield.
The very first example of forgiveness between people is found in this week’s Torah portion. Following Yehuda’s firm and passionate entreaty on behalf of Binyomin, Yosef loses his composure and chooses at last to reveal his true identity to his brothers. The pesukim (45:3-8) recount how he tells them that he is Yosef whom they sold, and that they should not be distressed or upset with themselves for doing so, as it was God Himself who sent Yosef down so that he could provide for them in the time of famine.
Yosef emphasizes three separate times that it was God Who sent him down to Egypt, absolving the brothers of any guilt they might feel at having sold him initially. This in itself is incredibly powerful. Yet even if, as we discussed last year, Yosef is able to shift his perspective and recognize that Hashem was running the show all along, that doesn’t necessarily account for his behavior throughout the rest of the Parsha. Yosef’s reframe of his story might have helped him to make meaning of his traumatic past, but it does not necessitate forgiving his brothers for their role. And furthermore, even if he were to forgive the brothers in his heart, he does not have to absolve them of their guilt and share this powerful new way of thinking with them.
Yosef’s behavior and the way he speaks to his brothers teaches us an incredibly poignant lesson about forgiveness. First, Yosef sends out all of his attendants before revealing himself to them so that these bystanders would not witness the brothers’ shame and embarrassment when they find out Yosef’s true identity (Rashi 45:1). Then, Yosef draws the brothers close to him: When he sees that they are stunned and ashamed of themselves when he reveals his identity, he beckons them closer, as the Pasuk says, “Vayomer Yosef, Geshu Na Eilai” (45: 4). Rashi notes that he brings them closer to show them his bris milah as proof that he is who he’s saying he is, but the Sforno explains that this was because Yosef was overcome with emotion, and did not want those who could hear his sobs to see that it was he who was crying. This is an extension of Yosef’s sending out everyone from the room, an added demonstration of sensitivity in recognizing that the brothers might experience further shame and guilt if those who served the viceroy saw the emotions that the brothers’ presence stirred in Yosef.
Yosef’s actions demonstrate that forgiveness extends beyond what one feels in one’s heart, and beyond what one can even verbalize. Yosef draws his brothers close to him, shows them his emotions, and allows them to see him without his powerful viceroy veneer. He then assuages their guilt by telling them that they are not to blame; he literally tells them, “lo atem shilachtem osi heina, ki ha’elokim,” it was not you who sent me here, it was God (45:8). He begs them not to be distressed or to feel guilty, and he shows a desire to remain connected to them beyond this powerful and emotionally charged moment, when he outlines his plans for the brothers to return with their father Yaakov and to live in Goshen, close to Yosef at last (45:10). Yosef continues to promise that he will provide for them through the remainder of the famine (45:11).
This behavior highlights that true forgiveness is not just a matter of ridding oneself of the emotional burden of a grudge or hatred toward another. It is about finding a way to act with love, to fill the void left behind when that hatred is expelled with something even more powerful, lasting, and strengthening.
It is important to recognize that Yosef’s forgiveness of his brothers comes from a place of power and empowerment and is rooted in Torah values. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l notes that Yosef saw the brothers demonstrate each of the three steps of Teshuva. First, they admit that they did wrong: when Yosef imprisons Shimon as collateral for bringing Binyomin to Egypt, the brothers say to each other, “Ashemim anachnu al achinu,” we are being punished on account of our brother [Yosef]” (42:21). The Shevatim recognize that they were wrong to ignore Yosef’s pleas for his life, and to treat him as they did when they sold him, and they admit this out loud, albeit not knowing that Yosef could understand them (42:23). Second, when Yehuda stands up in Binyomin’s defense and is willing to be made a slave in order to return him safely to his father, he confesses the brothers’ wrongdoing, saying, “HaElokim Matzah es Avon Avdecha,” God has uncovered our sin. Finally, back in a similar situation with the fate of one brother in the balance, Yosef witnesses them changing their ways entirely when Yehuda is willing to sacrifice himself on Binyomin’s behalf. Only then does Yosef forgive, because he sees that they are worthy of being forgiven.
Yet, there is one thing that Yosef does not do that is an essential component of forgiveness for both victim and perpetrator. R’ Sacks notes that despite all of Yosef’s actions in this week’s Parsha, the brothers are still wary and do not feel fully relieved or forgiven. In Parshas Vayechi, after Yaakov’s death, the brothers fear that Yosef still bears a grudge. They send word to Yosef feigning a dying wish from Yaakov, “Avicha tzivah lifnei moso… Ana sa na pesha achecha,” your father commanded before he died that you, Yosef, should forgive your brothers (50:16-17). If Yosef had indeed forgiven his brothers, why is this necessary?
Rabbi Sacks explains that Yosef had not ever actually said, “I forgive you.” These words are the key to the handcuffs; without them, the brothers still felt beholden – with them, they could be liberated from the injustice they perpetrated against Yosef.
There is much to learn from this first story of interpersonal forgiveness in the Torah, but we will summarize just a few points:
Forgiveness can be healing if it comes from a place of empowerment, particularly in response to the demonstration of regret, remorse, and behavior change on the part of the person who has done wrong.
If safe and healthy for and desired by all parties, we have the ability to free others from emotional pain not only through verbally granting pardon, but also through actually behaving in a manner that communicates forgiveness. We can draw others close, reassure them, share our perspective with them, and give to them in a way that demonstrates our willingness to reconnect with them.
Finally, it may sometimes seem as though it goes without saying – but more often than not, it doesn’t. If you are able to live by it, say it. Forgiveness is more than saying sorry; but it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so.