Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Healing and Change

With the Parsha of Miketz we bring the story of Joesph and the brothers to its climactic moment. After a series of harrowing events the brothers face the prospect of losing Binyamin to slavery for his having ostensibly stolen the divining cup of the viceroy of Egypt, who, little known to them, is really there lost brother Yosef. The question the story begs us to ask is why? Why did Yosef put his brothers through this horrific ordeal of fear and anguish. Why did he not simply tell them when they first arrived in Egypt and stood before him that he indeed was their missing brother?

And still more why did he wait at all for this chance rendezvous. Why didn't he immediately upon rising to prominence send word to his father that he, Yosef, was alive and well?

Many have offered reasons for Yosef's charade with his brothers. They range from Yosef's sense that he needed to fulfill the dream of his youth where all his brothers bow to him to the theory that he wanted to test whether they indeed had done teshuva. I must say, none of these explanations feel satisfactory to me.

I think that in order to understand Yosef's motives we need to think of the dynamics of a family.
I mean, can you imagine if Yosef had simply sent word up to his father Yaakov in Canaan that he was alive what upheaval it would have created. Yes, he could have found a way to say to his brothers that he forgave them and that all that happened was for the good, as indeed he later does. But would reconciliation really have been possible in that scenario?

Lets put the story in a larger context. Why are we here in this world? According to Ramchal G-d wants to bestow good on us, to give us His ultimate blessings of the world-to-come. We are here in this transitory world for only one reason . And that is to earn the very reward Hashem wants to bestow on us. He would prefer to simply give us our great gift, after all He loves us. Problem is that if he simply gave us the good without us having earned it we could never fully enjoy it. We would feel shame at being given a gift unearned and undeserved. It would be for us what the sages call a naama d'kesufa , a cup of shame. Hashem put us in this world so we will be able to enjoy the gifts He wants to give us in the world eternal through having a sense that we earned them through the struggle and effort of this world.

Human beings don't do well in relationships when they are simply the beneficiaries of the kindness of another. While they may enjoy the free ride for awhile, in the end they come to resent the one-sided dynamics of always being the recipient. Often they come to even hate their benefactor because his/her one sided generosity reminds them of their own limitations. Unless we feel some level of reciprocity and deservedness of what we receive we will experience a sense of shame in constantly receiving, a shame that ultimately turns gratitude into scorn.

I suggest it is this dynamic that motivated Yosef in trying to foster a reconciliation with his brothers. Of course Yosef could have sent word early on that he was safe and prominent in Egypt. He could have told his brothers that all was forgiven. They might even have believed him.
He could have avoided the whole drama and its anxiety climaxing with the near enslavement of Binyamin if only he had revealed himself to his brothers straight away.

But Yosef knew that in order for there to be a real healing in the family the dynamics would have to be more than one sided. It could not just be his generosity, no matter how sincere, that would foster the reconciliation. Yosef knew that for a true coming together the brothers would need to feel they had earned the right to be forgiven. The whole charade and drama was only created so they would have a chance to earn the gift of forgiveness Yosef wanted so desperately to offer. When in next week's reading they stand up for Binyamin and at risk to themselves they indeed show their mettle. Now the rapprochement is truly possible.

Most of us have places of shame in our lives, times we harmed someone we loved. We may have been verbally abusive to a spouse or worse to our child. We may have shown our ugliest side to another Jew treating him/her with disdain or callousness. Truth is, the other, our wife or child, and even our Jewish brother may be ready to forgive us and move on. Yet if we don't have an opportunity to redeem ourselves and show we deserve the forgiveness their generosity will likely not feel healing. A forgiveness unearned and undeserved rarely fosters reconciliation and, to the contrary, often contributes to deeper discord.

Like Yosef's brothers, we need opportunity to show we are no longer the callous and insensitive persons who spoke or acted so wantonly. To make the forgiveness of another work we need to have changed.

Our sages have long taught that a key component to teshuva, beyond the sense of remorse, is azeevat hachet, leaving the sinful behavior behind. In the ideal our change need be so complete that if the situation in which we sinned came before us again we would not fail.While most interpret these criteria as G-d's expectation of us, it may well be that we need to meet these conditions so that we can embrace the forgiveness G-d wants to give us. If we express remorse but remain unchanged we may well see Hashem's compassion towards us as unearned. That feeling would interfere with our capacity to renew our intimacy with our G-d.

The story of Yosef teaches us that real forgiveness is a process and not an instantaneous act. It takes time and effort and needs to be the by-product of both compassion on the one side and genuine change on the other.

Relationships are more than words. They are living dynamics between people. We all make mistakes. We all sometimes hurt the ones we love most. What we need do is show, not tell, we are sorry, and be willing to wait the time it may take for trust to be restored. And, most of all, we need to know that no healing is possible without change, not because the other won't be willing, but because we won't feel worthy.
Like the brothers of Yosef, only when we feel we have earned our return will we be able, once again, to embrace the opportunity for renewal and healing.

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!!
    Your interpretation of Yosef's behaviour shows deep thinking and understanding of human nature with all its complexities.

    Resh Lakish