Most of us are familiar with families in which members have not spoken to each other in years. The 18th-century moralist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato contends that difficulties in overcoming hatred and urges toward revenge are intrinsic to human nature:
“Hatred and revenge. These the human heart, in its perversity, finds it hard to escape…. Revenge is sweeter to him than honey; he can not rest until he has taken his revenge. If, therefore, he has the power to relinquish that to which his nature impels him; if he can forgive; if he will forebear hating anyone who provokes him to hatred; if he will neither exact vengeance when he has the opportunity to do so, nor bear a grudge against anyone; if he can forget and obliterate from his mind a wrong done to him as though it had never been committed; then he is, indeed, strong and mighty. So to act may be a small matter to angels, who have no evil traits, but not to ‘those who dwell in houses of clay….’” (Mesilat Yesharim — The Path of the Upright).
Granted, one must approximate the angels to overcome human inclinations to hate and take revenge. How, then, do we explain the astounding reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers?
Joseph’s brothers came to hate him because of what they saw as his malicious arrogance. Joseph blamed them for his years of imprisonment after they cast him into a pit full of snakes and scorpions. In last week’s portion, we learned that they came to feel guilty for their actions. In this week’s parsha we learn of Joseph’s forgiveness, a total triumph over hatred and revenge.
Helping the brothers was their ability to accept responsibility for their actions. They reflected and concluded that they were indeed wrong, allowing them to forget whatever originally prompted them to hate Joseph.
Joseph’s ability to forgive stemmed from his emotional sensitivity and his religious ideology. The most reliable indication of a person’s sensitivity is his ability to shed tears of emotion. Joseph demonstrates this capacity four times: Upon his initial encounter with his brothers, “he turned away from them and wept….”; when he first sees his younger brother Benjamin, “he was overcome with feeling…. He went into a room and wept there….”; after Judah’s confrontational address, “his sobs were so loud that…the news reached Pharaoh’s palace….” And, as we will read in next week’s portion, when his brothers plea for forgiveness, “Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.”
But there is another secret to Joseph’s treatment of his brothers. From his father, Jacob, Joseph learned the belief in a divine being who ultimately controls man’s destiny. When a person wholly has that belief, he is able to attribute to God’s plan even the most painful insults and not blame the perpetrators.
The anonymous 13th-century author of Sefer HaChinuch writes that at the root of the commandment to desist from revenge is the lesson that “everything that happens in one’s life…comes about because of God’s intervention…. Therefore, when a person is pained or hurt by another…he should not be prompted to take revenge against the perpetrator…. We learn this from King David who would not respond to the traitorous curses of his former ally, Shimi ben Gera.”
It may not be easy for us to emulate Joseph and David, but we would be spared much interpersonal strife if we would at least strive to do so.