Did Joseph really forgive his brothers? The biblical text strongly indicates that he did, one notable 18th century scholar, Hayim Ibn Attar (Ohr HaHayyim) argues that he didn’t. He explains that based upon Noahide law, anyone who had kidnapped or robbed is guilty of the death penalty. Although the victim could forgive the criminal, the law demands that the penalty be carried out.
- So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made of me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 48:5).
Still and all, it is unclear whether the brothers felt that Joseph was merely biding his time for revenge; they thought that after their father’s death, Joseph would exact vengeance. This attitude is immediately evident after Jacob dies. In next week’s Torah reading, the brothers verbalize their anxiety and Joseph clarified his earlier thoughts on this matter:
- · Now that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers became fearful and thought, “Suppose Joseph has been nursing a grudge against us and now plans to pay us back in full for all the wrong we did him!” So they approached Joseph and said: “Before your father died, he gave us these instructions: You shall say to Joseph, Jacob begs you to forgive the criminal wrongdoing of your brothers, who treated you so cruelly.’ Please, therefore, forgive the crime that we, the servants of your father’s God, committed.” When they spoke these words to him, Joseph broke into tears.Then his brothers proceeded to fling themselves down before him and said, “Let us be your slaves!”
- But Joseph replied to them: “Have no fear. Can I take the place of God? Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people.Therefore have no fear. I will provide for you and for your children.” By thus speaking kindly to them, he reassured them. Joseph remained in Egypt, together with his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years (Gen. 50:15-22).
These verses indicate that Joseph forgave his brothers and he felt sincere about it. It would seem highly irregular, if not downright anti-climactic for the Book of Genesis to end on such an ambivalent note. To presume that Joseph was stingy with his forgiveness would have tarnished his sterling quality; Joseph could hardly be called an exemplar to future generations had he been less than magnanimous in the art of forgiveness.
Subsequent Jewish tradition has always taught just as a person has a responsibility to seek forgiveness from a person(s) one has wronged, there also exists a duty on the part of the wronged party to act generously and be receptive to the experience of forgiveness if one sees that the wrong-doer is indeed sincere and penitent. Maimonides stresses this point in his classic study on the Laws of Penitence:
- Whenever a person who has wronged another asks to be forgiven, he should do so with a perfect heart and with an agreeable spirit. Even if this person has distressed and wronged him exceedingly much, nevertheless, he should not be vengeful or bear a grudge towards him.
When the brothers found out about Joseph’s real identity, they feared retribution, but Joseph showed them by example how one must treat one’s adversaries. In many ways, it is in my view, the perfect conclusion to the Book of Genesis: Brothers must reconcile.
Why is this story about Joseph so relevant and important for today?
Rarely does the week day Torah reading correspond to the events of the world. Yet, this past week, we saw a divine synchronicity—the death of Nelson Mandela, who in many ways, personified the characteristics of Joseph in the Torah. The personality traits they exhibited reveal parallelisms that are striking.
- Joseph and Mandela were hated by their brethren.
- Both Joseph and Nelson Mandela spent years in prison; Joseph spent 22 years away from his home; Mandela spent 27 years away from his home.
- Joseph ushers a new era of prosperity; Mandela also ushers a new era of prosperity and freedom for his people.
- Both Joseph and Mandela proved to be great statesmen who brought great prosperity to their countrymen that lasted for decades.
- By word and deed, Joseph and Mandela taught their people about the importance of forgiveness. Mandela’s words left a legacy, ”No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”
- “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for loves comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It may be no coincidence that he died on the last day of Hanukkah. And like the Maccabees, he fought for the freedom for self-determination. Let us hope that leaders in our country will use their influence to bring healing to our nation, so that every person will realize life’s potential through the power of love and forgiveness.
 Maimonides, MT Hilchot De’ot 6:6.