How To Hold A Grudge
This letter appeared in the Sunday NY Times advice column called “Social Q’s” on July 5:
We had dinner with another couple at an elegant restaurant. I wore a beautiful and very expensive Chanel dress. When I walked in, the woman we were meeting said, “Oh, I have that same dress.” She then told me she bought it at a discount store for about a thousand times less than I paid for mine. Wasn’t that the most disgusting comment ever? She never compliments me and often makes nasty comments about my jewelry. (“You look so sparkly!”) How would you get back at her?
This letter would be comical if it were not so sad. The slight inflicted is minor, one could say, the reaction to it so furious. Yet the letter illustrates how feelings of revenge and the desire to retaliate may be elicited by insensitive comments or actions that others direct toward us. Some of these may seems petty, like the one described in the letter. Others are more serious, as in the story of Joseph that we have been reading in the Torah these past several weeks. Nevertheless, whether in response to a minor incident or a major one, feelings are feelings, and the question for this evening is, how should we behave in response when we have been wronged?
Much can be learned from studying the example set by Joseph. In this week’s parasha, Jacob dies in Egypt. The Torah tells us that Joseph’s brothers are worried. They are afraid that Joseph has held a grudge against them for selling him into slavery, and that with the death of their father he will now exact his vengeance for the evil that they did to him. They even tell Joseph that before he died, their father told them that he hoped that Joseph would find it in his heart to forgive them.
Most of us can understand how difficult it would be to forgive someone, let alone your brother, who is supposed to love you, for selling us into slavery. Many brothers and sisters find it hard to forgive one another for far less. Undoubtedly some of us know people who cannot find it in their heart to forgive a family member, and therefore they do not talk to that person for years on end. In response to his brother’s plea to be forgiven, Joseph replies, “Fear not, am I in the place of G-d? Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for the good… so fear not, I will sustain you and your young ones.”
Do you hear words of forgiveness in Joseph’s response? I do not. I hear from Joseph a promise not to retaliate against his brothers for the evil they have done toward him. If G-d wants to punish them for their evil, so be it. Joseph, for his part, promises to fulfill his obligation to support his family in Egypt. But not once in the entire saga does Joseph utter the words, “I forgive you.”
Some understand Joseph’s failure to forgive his brothers after all of these years as a surprising moral lapse in someone who has come to be known in our tradition as “Yosef HaTsadik” – “Joseph the Righteous”. After all, isn’t Yom Kippur the day of the year when we are supposed to forgive those who have wronged us? Doesn’t Joseph have a religious obligation to forgive? Many Yom Kippurs have passed in the intervening years that lead to their father’s death. Could Joseph not have forgiven them by now? Yet, others see Joseph’s failure to forgive his brothers as further sign of his greatness! They understand that Joseph is unable to forgive his brothers. Naturally, they say, Joseph cannot forgive his brothers for what they have done. After all, who could forgive such an un-brotherly act as selling a brother into slavery? Joseph’s greatness, according to them, lies in the fact that even though he cannot forgive them, he still uses his power to protect them. Although he cannot honestly find it in his heart to forgive them, he will not act against them. If his brothers are to be punished at all, it will be at the hands of G-d. Joseph will have nothing to do with that.
This is a lesson for all of us. How ought we to react to a person who has wronged us in words or in action? It is certainly praiseworthy to be able to “forgive and forget”, yet, as the story of Joseph illustrates, this is not always possible. Although we may not be able to forgive others for what they have done to us, we can restrain ourselves from getting back at them. Joseph shows us that it is possible to maintain cordial relationships with others and to even be warm and generous to them, though we may harbor some lingering resentment toward them in our hearts.
*This sermon was inspired by a teaching by Rav David Silverberg