‘Come, let us reach an understanding,’ says the Eternal One. ‘Be your sins like crimson, they can turn white as snow. Be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.’ Words from the Book of Isaiah (1:18), which offer comfort and hope to those who have done wrong, which is likely to mean all of us. Indeed, any fire and brimstone preacher would readily proclaim that we are all sinners and, although it is not usual for the average Liberal or Reform rabbi to reproach congregants too often about their sins, no one asks to be excused from services come Yom Kippur with ‘Rabbi, this year I have committed no sin and I need not be here’.
Yet there are sins and there are sins. Over the last few weeks, the news has carried the shocking story of three women held in domestic slavery here in London for thirty years or more and these reports have coincided with the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis. Acts of betrayal and abuses of power are everyday occurrences, it seems, and even slavery is closer to home than we may have realised. How do we respond to what happens to Joseph at the hands of his brothers? Maybe we could imagine ourselves wanting to get rid of him, too; he is certainly not endearing at the outset and we may even empathise with his older brothers to an extent. However, there is a world of difference between thinking something and going ahead and doing it. As Bob Dylan once sang ‘If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine’.
The story is very familiar to us. The brothers first conspire to kill Joseph, then agree to leave him to die in a pit and finally arrange his sale as a slave to passing traders – ironically, members of the tribe of Ishmael, the son whom Abraham, Joseph’s great grandfather, had once abandoned. (Do we have here an example of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children, even down to the third generation?) Though unpremeditated and opportunistic, the brothers’ act remains an appalling one, and is compounded by the lies told to a distraught Jacob upon their return home and sustained for many years afterwards. If the brothers did feel any remorse, the narrative is silent at this point. No attempts to enquire after him are made and certainly none to rescue him. He is dead to them.
Many years down the line, the brothers meet Joseph again in very different circumstances. This time it is he who has the power of life and death over them. However, no one is quite the same as they once were. Something has happened: they have grown as people. Judah is no longer the same man who urged on the others to profit by selling their brother; he is pleading for Benjamin for the sake of their aged father. Reuben, who had once intended to rescue Joseph from the pit, does not keep silent this time in the face of his brothers and rebukes them for their crime, and they hardly need his reminder to acknowledge the responsibility they bear. Indeed, such is the power of the scene which the biblical writer relates, that it is difficult to imagine that this is the first time the past had played on their minds. How could any person truly forget such a thing?
Joseph has grown up, too. As we know, within a few years of his enslavement, the dreamer of dreams was no longer placing himself at the centre of the universe, with sun and moon bowing down to him, but was acknowledging before Pharaoh that God was the source of his prophecy. When he later schemes against his brothers upon their arrival in Egypt, though, we sense a certain ambiguity, as there is no need, from an everyday point of view, to prolong the agony in the way he does. Whatever his reasons (the need to be sure that his brothers are truly sorry or to fulfil the dreams God once sent him) there is a possibility that Joseph himself is sinning here. Why should his father and his younger brother suffer, for example?
Yet, when he finally discloses his true identity, his emotions are very real and profoundly felt. He weeps, upon Benjamin and upon all his brothers. We are told that ‘his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians [who were waiting outside] could hear’ (Genesis 45:2). When Jacob arrives from Canaan, Joseph rides out to meet him in his chariot and weeps upon him, too. There is no difference in how he responds to any of them, including his older brothers, among whom there are likely to be varying degrees of guilt for what happened so long ago.
What is he thinking about as they embrace? The hurt? The suffering he has endured? The lost years? Could we be persuaded that it is far more about feelings than thoughts here? Joseph’s love for his family, his acceptance of his brothers’ repentance and his desire to re-establish their relationship are the only emotions evident. To Joseph, even what has happened is part of a larger plan, God’s plan, and he reassures them with this and seeks to assuage their guilt.
There is an old saying: ‘forgive and forget’, which is often amended nowadays to ‘I can forgive, but I cannot forget’. When heard, one often detects an edge which may well preclude true forgiveness. Joseph, on the other hand, genuinely seems to forgive his brothers, even though it is most unlikely that he will forget what happened to him. As Jews, as human beings, we remember; we do not forget. Yet, in one sense, that is sometimes what we need to do, if we are to move beyond the pain that others have caused us; not trying to wipe the past from our memory, but working to negate its continuing power over us.
The word kippur, from kapara, or covering, may offer us a way to achieve a little of what Joseph did. It is sometimes right and necessary to put a covering over the past, to shove it to one side and not to let it block our path forward. As we change and grow, we should acknowledge that so may others; as with Joseph and his brothers, so with us. Hineh mah tov u’manaim, shevet achim gam yachad. How good and pleasant it is when brothers, and sisters, sit down together – with their sins divested of power through their own efforts, turned from crimson to white as snow, finally having reached an understanding and a reconciliation.
Student Rabbi Nathan Godleman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.