As Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While most of us have not been bitten by radioactive spiders and granted the special abilities of Spiderman, we still each have the opportunity to find ourselves in positions of power. Sometimes this power comes from a job or other marker of status, but often power manifests itself in the way we behave in our relationships. One such example of this is something which is at the heart of Beit T’Shuvah, and something which we see a prime example of in this week’s parashah, Vayechi: the act of t’shuvah.
One of the key points in the process of making t’shuvah is to acknowledge the wrong that one has committed. Going to a person we have hurt and asking for forgiveness is an intense experience, and one entirely based around power dynamics. In a moment of humility, we own up to our actions and await with baited breath a decision by that person on whether they want to forgive us. To a small extent, we can influence their decision through the changes we demonstrate, but at a certain point it is beyond our control and solely up to that other person. Will that person forgive us? Will they desire to exact revenge and hold it over our heads? Will the relationship ever be repaired?
These must be the questions and anxieties going through Joseph’s brothers’ heads in this week’s parashah. As we read in the last chapter of Bereshit, after burying Jacob, Joseph’s brothers go to Joseph to ask forgiveness for everything they did to him. Though Joseph said he forgave them when he revealed himself to them last week (Genesis 45), the brothers actually have yet to apologize for selling him into slavery, and they choose to do it immediately after Jacob’s burial, worried that “Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” (Gen 50:15). And they wait with baited breath, as Joseph has all the power – both to forgive them and as Pharaoh’s second-in-command – unsure of what his response will be now that their father has died.
And how does Joseph respond? Does he refuse forgiveness, choosing instead to return the evil that they did to him upon them? Does he forgive them, but lord his mercy over their heads? No. He does neither. He forgives them, and states, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20).
Joseph, in a moment modeling humility, shows that while he might have power due to his status as the second most powerful individual in Egypt, he does not have God’s power to make judgments. His power, though great, is limited, and he acknowledges that it is not his place. He is acknowledging that he is only human and must forgive for when he needs to be forgiven. Joseph’s actions demonstrate that he forgives others with the hope that he would be forgiven if he ever apologized.
Both Joseph and his brothers are models worthy of emulation in this story. Everyone at some point will mess up, and everyone will likely have to decide whether or not to ask for forgiveness. The brothers do not ask for forgiveness immediately; rather they do so only when confronted with the realization that Joseph is the most powerful individual in their family and they no longer have their father to be their buffer. And yet, despite their delay, they are still forgiven, giving true meaning to the phrase “Better late than never.” And just as we all will mess up at some point and need to ask for forgiveness, so too will people ask us for forgiveness. And the humility Joseph showed in the moment when he was asked is the same humility that we can and should show when we are asked for forgiveness.
This also happens to be the last weekend of 2017, and as we transition to the new secular year with whatever New Year’s Resolutions we create, let us consider how we wish to forgive and be forgiven, and may we, as Joseph did, emulate what Rabbi Hillel said was the heart of Judaism: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,