I really enjoy the time I spend with small study groups. I am currently leading a few different groups of adults that come together, mostly once a month, to read a text together and share our own thoughts and responses to the text. Every time I leave one of these gatherings, I feel positive about the time we had together and the new insights I learned from the group. This happened to me this past Tuesday night at Torah on Tap. I shared with the group an essay written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England about the story of Joseph and his brothers that we are currently reading on Shabbat and it led to a fascinating discussion about forgiveness and guilt, shame and responsibility. I want to share some excerpts of the text with you in the hope that you will find it enlightening and it may help inspire good conversations around your Shabbat table.
Joseph and His Brothers - Acts of Forgiveness
From the words of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - Chief Rabbi of England
"I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God." (Gen. 45: 4-8)
Joseph forgave. That was the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another. He said, 'It was not you but God.' He told them their act had resulted in a positive outcome. . . .
Forgiveness does not appear in every culture. It is not a human universal, nor is it a biological imperative . . . . . Judaism is (primarily) an ethic of guilt, as opposed to most other systems, which are ethics of shame. One of the fundamental differences between them is that shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. In shame cultures when a person does wrong, he or she is, as it were, stained, marked, defiled. In guilt cultures what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin. The person retains his or her fundamental worth ("the soul you gave me is pure," as we say in our prayers). It is the act that has somehow to be put right. That is why in guilt cultures there are processes of repentance, atonement and forgiveness. . . .
Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognize that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation simply did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. Greece was a shame-and-honor culture that turned on the twin concepts of character and fate. Judaism was a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are will and choice. The idea of forgiveness was then adopted by Christianity, making the Judeo-Christian ethic the primary vehicle of forgiveness in history.
Repentance and forgiveness . . . . transformed the human situation. For the first time, repentance established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent, I show I can change? The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. Forgiveness liberates us from the past. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. It is the undoing of what has been done. Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.
Forgiveness is a major theme during our High Holiday season and it should also be something we think about during the year. I mentioned to the group this week, that we have prayers for forgiveness in our weekday liturgy, said every day of the week that is not Shabbat. I want us to think about:
What role forgiveness plays in our lives today?
How forgiving can be a liberating experience?
Is it possible to forgive people who are no longer in our lives?
What are the obstacles that stand in the way of us forgiving ourselves?
The stories of Joseph have many lessons to teach us and many topics for us to discuss. It is amazing to note that with the right mindset and study guides, we can always find something new in these stories to motivate and encourage us.
Rabbi Adam Feldman