How to Walk the Different Paths of Forgiveness – Parshat Vayigash


“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”  – Chris Jami

A good friend solicited me for a donation to a Jewish educational institution that teaches kids with learning differences.  My standard response would be to write a check.  Instead, I snapped at her that I needed to “get over my anger” as I regaled her with the story of an old grievance I had against the director, for what I thought were her limiting beliefs that did not promote, but thwarted the potentials of children.  Looking back, I know that many well-meaning educators and parents want children to “be happy,” and rather than encouraging striving and developing resilience, they think that keeping children within the zone of “no possibility of failure” will ensure that happiness.  But that’s another schmooze for another time.    

Why Am I Still Angry?

According to my VIA (Values in Action) Assessment of the 24 Character Strengths, “Forgiveness” is in my bottom twenty.  I am upfront about it, though and I try to warn people: “I’m letting you know that I’ve been scientifically identified as someone who holds onto a grudge, so think hard before you say that snarky thing I know you’re thinking, or do something to piss me off, because I’m not going to forgive you for a very long time – if ever – and this won’t be good for our relationship.”  That’s fair – right?  It’s amusing that people think I’m kidding about this– I’m not.      

But then I bump up against an “inconvenient truth,” where the weekly Torah portion is addressing me personally, and the message is: “Stop it, already.”  In Vayigash, when Joseph unmasked himself as Viceroy of Egypt and revealed his identity to his brothers, he acknowledged the elephant in the room, recounting their intention to do him harm when they sold him into slavery.  Incredibly, Joseph bore them no ill will; instead, he acknowledged that they were players in God’s plan, which was to set the very story into motion whereby Joseph would be in a position – not to exact vengeance – but to “do good” to them.  This would have been an opportune time for the brothers to fall at Joseph’s feet sobbing heart-felt apologies and unite in a newfound experience of brotherly love.  But that never happened. As I struggle to raise the attribute of “forgiveness” up a few notches in my psychological profile, it pays for me to examine how Joseph responded as he did in this epic encounter.

Forgiveness Demands No Apology

While I am certainly not advocating that apologies are unnecessary (you can verify that with my husband), we don’t always get the emotional satisfaction of someone admitting their wrongdoing or at least expressing regret over causing us pain.  Sometimes the offender is dead, or estranged from us, or refuses to acknowledge their part of a conflict; other times the person may be clueless, not even knowing we are carrying a grudge. When we realize that forgiveness is not about the other person, but an act that brings healing to ourselves, then we don’t tie our emotional wellbeing to their apologetic confessions or admissions. 

You Don’t Have to Agree on the Story

One of the reasons we get hung up on apologies is that we want the other person to validate our reality, and soothe our need to be “right” while they were “wrong.”  How well does that go?  We craft our stories are based on our interpretations of the facts – our reading of the motives and intentions of other people, and how identify ourselves in the situation.  Sometimes a conversation can get to the bottom of things and clear the air, but just as often there is no consensus on the story.  Even if there were agreement on the objective “facts,” the “wrong-doer” can always rationalize and justify their behavior and perpetuate the conflict.  Joseph never “gets into it” with his brothers.  Sometimes, the best thing for an intimate relationship is to just to let things. 

To Forgive is Not to Forget – or Trust Again

Other times, however, we drop the story precisely because we aren’t interested in restoring intimacy, or because there never was a real connection to begin with.  Forgiveness is not synonymous with a heart-to-heart connection.  Forgiveness is in our control; a decision we make about our behavior.  Trust, on the other hand, is about theirs.  Some people are too damaged or toxic to allow back into our inner circle.   When we realize that forgiveness does not require us to engage in dysfunction, we can wish them well – from afar.    

The Bigger Plan        

When I was first becoming observant, I asked someone about the paradox between “everything being decreed by God who runs the world,” and punishment for behavior that seems predestined.  I never forgot the answer: “If someone punches you in the nose, then yes, it was decreed that you suffer that injury.  However, the person who punched you exercised his free will to cause you harm and needs to be held accountable.” In a cosmic matrix of unimaginable magnitude, the people who use their free will to bestow good are the people that God wants to reward, and conversely, those who inflict harm have it coming.  This worldview acknowledges that nothing happens by accident, and the stories of our lives unfold as they do for a reason.  As Oprah Winfrey said, “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’”

But when it comes to the behavior of others, however, they are also acting out their karma of reward and punishment.  Thus, the story is bigger than us; it’s bigger than everybody.

Who’s In Charge of Payback?   

Joseph never retaliated against his brothers.  On the other hand, he did put them through a test to see if they would give up another brother to save themselves. One of the biggest relationship mistakes we can make is to punish people over and over for the same “punch on the nose.”  When Joseph realized his brothers had evolved, it would have been counterproductive to exact vengeance for an old wound.  Or perhaps Joseph realized that they had already suffered the consequences of their behavior.  Sometimes the powerful approach is to be the observer and not the avenger and let the universe be in charge.

Choosing Love

The highest and hardest level of forgiveness is to respond with love.  When we don’t hold onto anger and resentment, we can act from a new reality entirely.  Joseph treated his brothers kindly, assuring them that he would provide for them.  This response is not being a martyr, a denial of history, or the abnegation of the self, but a conscious choice about who Joseph wanted to be and how he wanted to show up in that situation.  It’s the ultimate control.  The English writer, Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.”  Joseph proves him wrong – it is very much within the human experience and it is perhaps one of our highest aspirations. 






The Power of Story In Our Lives

You don’t just have a story – you’re a story in the making and you never know what the next chapter’s going to be. That’s what makes it exciting.

                                                                                                           – Dan Millman

It’s said that human beings can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but only about 30 seconds without finding meaning in something. Creating stories is what we naturally do. Stories are not the problem. After all, we are hard-wired for story. It’s how we make sense of everyone and everything.

But we live in the stories we create. And so the challenge, therefore, is to create stories that work for us instead of against us, and to write the stories of our lives in ways that are empowering, strengths-based and growth-oriented, instead of victim-based, dis-empowering and shame-based.

Coming into a State of Coherence

The first stories we tell about ourselves form what is referred to as “the narrative arc of our lives.” Aaron Antonovsky, one of the pioneers of medical sociology, was able to correlate the connection between having a strong sense of narrative coherence and greater happiness, health, resilience and motivation to take positive action. Thus, coherence is not just a “nicety;” in fact, our very well-being depends on it. Says Antonovsky, three elements contribute to a strong sense of coherence:

  1. Comprehensibility. I understand what has happened (or is going on in my life). My important life stories make sense to me.
  1. Manageability. I can cope with what has happened (or is happening) in my life. It’s not easy, but I can summon the internal and external resources I need to manage my life.
  1. Meaningfulness. I have grown or learned (or have the potential to) as a result of my experiences. The challenges I face are worth addressing.

Vayigash” is a perfect example of what is possible when one is in a state of “coherence.” The story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax with one of the most dramatic moments in Biblical narrative. In reaction to Joseph’s feigned refusal to release Benjamin, Yehuda begs Joseph to take him in Benjamin’s stead, pleading that the loss of another son – this son – would kill his father, Jacob.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph bursts out revealing his true identity, stating, “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph!” The brothers are in shock and terrified. Before them stands the complete refutation of their actions, against which they are utterly defenseless. As the Viceroy of Egypt, Joseph could have them imprisoned or worse, but miraculously, he bears the brothers no ill will. Not only is Joseph not punitive, but he even comforts his brothers, stripping them of any power or hold they thought they ever had over his fate.

The Bigger Picture

For underneath the surface drama of the story, and the intentions and motives of the brothers, lies an Omniscient, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, who was orchestrating events to fulfill a Divine Plan. This belief in the bigger picture and deeper meaning of otherwise meaningless and tragic events gave Joseph a sense of purpose, helping him to manage and cope with his ordeals and remain spiritually, emotionally and mentally intact. How else could he emerge from twelve years in an Egyptian prison with all of his wits about him, so as to be promoted to Viceroy to Egypt on the spot!

Whether it was at that very moment, or later, when he finally saw his brothers, his story “made sense,” became “comprehensible” and Joseph was able to narrate it in a way that was empowering. Rather than be a victim, and consumed with hatred and bitterness, Joseph was filled with strength and grace.

Telling a New Story

In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains how a plot is what happens, whereas the real story is how the protagonist changes. Understandably, the plot hooks us, but the purpose of the story is much deeper than the mere telling of events. Looking below the storyline of “what happened” to get at “what the story was about,” affords us a new perspective. When we look at the painful stories of our past and see how we nevertheless coped and managed, and how we were able to transmute suffering into growth, then the stories of our lives can take on new meanings, meanings that can even make some overall sense.   This awareness of coherence then gives us the strength and resilience to deal with the struggles and challenges of our present.

And that fills us with well-being, optimism, and possibility. Our challenge is to stop telling stories that keep us stuck in blame.   Like Joseph, we can compose the narratives of our past in ways that are empowering, and in so doing, we can use our past to inspire our present and to inform a better future. When we can look back at the events of our past and embrace them as for being the perfect training ground for who are today, then, we can begin to be the authors of our own lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

1.We all have stories we create that we think of as objective truth. Think of a time when someone wronged you, and you felt betrayed. Now, retell that story to yourself but exonerate that person. Say or write it in a way where the person was not trying to hurt you and was unaware that he/she was doing so. Make this person innocent in your new version. Then respond to the following: how does this new story make you feel? How do you now feel about this person?

Retelling of story

How do you feel? How do you feel towards that person?

2. Write down three situations where you feel you successfully overcame a difficulty. What qualities came out of you in those situations that helped you be successful (i.e. patience, empathy, self-awareness, etc.)?

Three successful situations:

List your qualities in those situations:

3. Write down a challenge you are facing right now. Think about the qualities you just listed and you know you are capable of tapping into. Which of these will help you through your current challenge? How can you implement it/them to work through what you are dealing with?

Current challenge/ quality from above that can help you and how: