When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.
There are rare and special moments when the world changes and a new possibility is born: when the Wright brothers in 1903 made the first man-made flight, or in 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, or when, almost 6,000 years ago, someone discovered that marks made in clay with a stick could, when the clay dried, become permanent signs and thus writing, and civilization, were born. In 1439, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press (though the Chinese had developed it four centuries before); in 1821 when Faraday invented the electric motor; or in 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web.
There is such a moment in this week’s parshah, and in its way it was no less transformative than any of the above. It happened when Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers. While they were silent and in a state of shock, he went on to say these words:
“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 … it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Gen. 45:4-8
This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.
According to the Midrash, God had forgiven before this, but not according to the plain sense of the text. Forgiveness is conspicuously lacking as an element in the stories of the Flood, the Tower of Babel and Sodom. When Abraham prayed his audacious prayer for the people of Sodom, he did not ask God to forgive them. His argument was about justice, not forgiveness. Perhaps there were innocent people there, 50 or even 10. It would be unjust for them to die. Their merit should therefore save the others, says Abraham. That is quite different from asking God to forgive.
Joseph forgave. That was a first in history. Yet the Torah hints that the brothers did not fully appreciate the significance of his words. After all, he did not explicitly use the word “forgive.” He told them not to be distressed. He said, “It was not you but God.” He told them their act had resulted in a positive outcome. But all of this was theoretically compatible with holding them guilty and deserving of punishment. That is why the Torah recounts a second event, years later, after Jacob had died. The brothers sought a meeting with Joseph, fearing that he would now take revenge. They concocted a story:
They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. Gen. 50:16-18
What they said was a white lie, but Joseph understood why they said it. The brothers used the word “forgive” — this is the first time it appears explicitly in the Torah — because they were still unsure about what Joseph meant. Does someone truly forgive those who sold him into slavery? Joseph wept that his brothers had not fully understood that he had forgiven them long before. He had no anger, no lingering resentment, no desire for revenge. He had conquered his emotions and reframed his understanding of events.
Forgiveness or Appeasement
Forgiveness does not appear in every culture. It is not a human universal, nor is it a biological imperative. We know this from a fascinating study by American classicist David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (2010). In it, he argues that there was no concept of forgiveness in the literature of the ancient Greeks. There was something else, often mistaken for forgiveness: appeasement of anger.
When someone does harm to someone else, the victim is angry and seeks revenge. This is clearly dangerous for the perpetrator, and they may try to get the victim to calm down and move on. They may make excuses: It wasn’t me, it was someone else. Or, it was me, but I couldn’t help it. Or, it was me, but it was a small wrong, and I have done you much good in the past, so on balance you should let it pass.
Alternatively, or in conjunction with these other strategies, the perpetrator may beg, plead and perform some ritual of abasement or humiliation. This is a way of saying to the victim, “I am not really a threat.”
The Greek word sugnome, sometimes translated as forgiveness, really means, says Konstan, exculpation or absolution. It is not that I forgive you for what you did, but that I understand why you did it — you could not really help it, you were caught up in circumstances beyond your control — or, alternatively, I do not need to take revenge because you have now shown by your deference to me that you hold me in proper respect. My dignity has been restored.
There is a classic example of appeasement in the Torah: Jacob’s behavior toward Esau when they meet again after a long separation. Jacob had fled home after Rebecca overheard Esau resolving to kill him after Isaac’s death (Gen. 27:41). Prior to the meeting Jacob sends him a huge gift of cattle, saying “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (Gen. 32:21). When the brothers meet, Jacob bows down to Esau seven times, a classic abasement ritual. The brothers meet, kiss, embrace and go their separate ways, not because Esau has forgiven Jacob but because either he has forgotten or he has been placated.
Appeasement as a form of conflict management exists even among non-humans. Frans de Waal, the primatologist, has described peace-making rituals among chimpanzees, bonobos and mountain gorillas. There are contests for dominance among the social animals, but there must also be ways of restoring harmony to the group if it is to survive at all. So, there are forms of appeasement and peace-making that are pre-moral and have existed since the birth of humanity.
Forgiveness has not. Konstan argues that its first appearance is in the Hebrew Bible, and he cites the case of Joseph. What he does not make clear is why Joseph forgives, and why the idea and institution are born specifically within Judaism.
A New Form of Morality
The answer is that within Judaism a new form of morality was born. 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 their 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.
That is the explanation for Joseph’s behavior from the moment the brothers appear before him in Egypt for the first time to the point where, in this week’s parshah, he announces his identity and forgives his brothers. It is a textbook case of putting the brothers through a course in atonement, the first in literature. Joseph is thus teaching them, and the Torah is teaching us, what it is to earn forgiveness.
Recall what happens. First, he accuses the brothers of a crime they have not committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. In other words, he is forcing them to reenact that earlier occasion when they came back to their father with one of the brothers, Joseph, missing. Note what happens next:
They said to one another, “Surely, we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. Gen. 42:21-23
This is the first stage of repentance. They admit they have done wrong.
Next, after the second meeting, Joseph has his silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. This incriminating evidence is found, and the brothers are brought back. They are told that Benjamin must stay as a slave.
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves — we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” Gen. 44:16
This is the second stage of repentance. They confess. They do more; they admit collective responsibility. This is important. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery it was Judah who proposed the crime (Gen. 37:26-27) but they were all (except Reuben) complicit in it.
Finally, at the climax of the story Judah himself says, “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers!” Gen. 42:33
Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to become a slave so that his brother Benjamin can go free. This is what the Sages and Maimonides define as complete repentance, namely when circumstances repeat themselves and you have an opportunity to commit the same crime again, but you refrain from doing so because you have changed.
Now Joseph can forgive, because his brothers, led by Judah, have gone through all three stages of repentance:
admission of guilt
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 are not just two ideas among many. They 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. The moral life is one that makes room for forgiveness.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, 1991-2013. His teachings have been made available to all at rabbisacks.org. This essay was written in 2011.