Parasha VaYigash

Reconciliation — "Then" and "Now" Rabbi Joseph Telushkin relates the following story. It illustrates the rancor that is legend in synagogue life: Two members of a congregation have been feuding for years. On Yom Kippur eve, just before the Kol Nidre service, the rabbi brings the two men together in his office. “You must make peace,” he implores. “What is the point of going into the synagogue and asking G-d to forgive you when you cannot even forgive your fellow man?”  The men are both moved. They hug and promise that they will not fight anymore. When services end, one of the men greets the other. “I prayed for you everything that you prayed for me,” the first man said.  “Starting up already?” the second man answered. Reconciliation and forgiveness can be very difficult. Yet one of the most important callings of our tradition is to bring peace between people.  In this week’s parasha, we read about the forgiveness and reconciliation the Joseph brought about with his brothers. In thinking about this parasha, I was struck by the parallels between Joseph and another great peacemaker in our own time, Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95. To those who think that the stories of the Bible are fairy tales — fictions that could not have happened — all we need to do is to look at the similarities between Joseph’s life and Nelson Mandela’s to convince us of the basic truth of the biblical account of Joseph. Both men were born to rule, but ended up ruling in ways they could not have imagined. Both men were born to privilege. Joseph was the son of the wealthy patriarch, the prophet Jacob.  Mandela was raised in the home of his tribal chief, to whom he was the heir apparent.  Both men were dreamers at a young age, and both had a rebellious streak. Mandela rebelled against the paramount chief who was planning his marriage and future chieftainship.  He ran away to Johannesburg, where he was suspended from college for his political activity against apartheid. He dreamed of a South Africa where white and black could live together in freedom and equality. Joseph was given a coat of many colors by his father, a symbol of leadership in the family. He too refused to follow the rules of tribal life and had dreams of leadership that went against long established tribal custom. Both Nelson Mandela and Joseph were incarcerated unjustly, and spent long years in the darkness of prison. Yet both were able to maintain hopefulness in the face of what would drive others to despair. For Mandela, this was achieved through his ideals and his conviction that in the end the cause of justice and equality would eventually win. For Joseph, hope was maintained by his certainty that G-d would not abandon him in his darkest days. “Tell your dreams to me,” says Joseph to the cupbearer and the baker with whom he was imprisoned. “Perhaps G-d will give me the wisdom to interpret them”. Both Joseph and Nelson Mandela came from their prison cells to rise to lead their respective nations with skill and wisdom, with dignity and forbearance.  However, their greatest achievements were not in the areas of administrative skills, but in moral force.  Nelson Mandela received world wide acclaim as a peacemaker, as a person who chose forgiveness over vengeance. “His commitment to ……. reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to,” said President Obama upon hearing of the death of Mandela. “He was influential, courageous and profoundly good.”  Those words could very well have been spoken about Joseph. In this week’s parasha we learn that Joseph’s brothers are terrified that he is going to pay them back for having sold him into slavery. They are horrified at the thought that he will exact vengeance for all the years of suffering. It is Joseph’s belief in G-d’s power in his life that keeps him from doing just that.  He allays the fears of his brothers with the words, “G-d sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land and to sustain you….it was not you who sent me here — it was G-d.” In saying these words, Joseph shows his profound humility. “It is not all about me,” he is saying to his brothers in another way. “My suffering is part of a greater plan that only now becomes apparent.” As I was writing these thoughts, my attention was brought to new musical opened on Broadway this summer called “Soul Doctor”. It is about the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach, may his memory be for a blessing. There is a scene in the play where Reb Shlomo is giving a concert in Vienna. His mentor, Reb Pinchas, with whom Reb Shlomo has fallen out, confronts him. “A Jew must never forgive the crimes of these ‘cultured citizens of Vienna'” says Reb Pinchas. “My dear Reb Pinchas,” replies Reb Shlomo, “If I had two hearts, I could use one to love and one to hate. But I only have one heart … so I use it to love!”  This is the greatness of both Joseph and Nelson Mandela, and it could be our greatness as well. We only have one heart – use it to love.  The lives of Joseph and Mandela show us a different way – the possibilities of escaping our need to settle scores from the past and moving forward in our lives to a brighter, more glorious future.  May they inspire us to overcome hatred, enmity, bigotry and intolerance. May they serve as models of how we can free ourselves from the desire for retaliation in our personal lives, in our work lives or in our communal and political lives. Let not our dreams be imprisoned by bitterness.  To paraphrase Nelson Mandela : "If there are dreams about a beautiful life, there are also roads that lead to that goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness." Shabbat Shalom