From Offense to Forgiveness

From Offense to Forgiveness

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

It’s difficult to believe that the same brothers who left Joseph for dead in a pit without water are now gathering around their father’s deathbed to receive his blessings. It was an ornamented tunic that sent the brothers into a snit about their brother’s favored status among them. But it was hunger and familial bonds that broke the spell of sibling rivalry and revealed more essential needs. 

The Book of Genesis takes us through the family system of Jacob and Rachel and Leah. It’s fraught with numerous issues worthy of hours of psychoanalysis. But what Jacob said at the beginning of the brothers’ jealousy was more meaningful than any modern psychoanalysis; it was patriarchal and prescient. When the brothers came to complain about Joseph to their father, Jacob kept the matter in mind (Genesis 37:11, “shamar et hadavar”). This isn’t an unusual or unfamiliar comment made by any father to his young children who don’t have as much life experience. Though Jacob might not have known exactly how events would unfold, he did, however, have more insight and represent more faith in God. So he kept the matter in mind to see where the events would lead Joseph and the entire family. 

Biblical commentators, beginning with Rashi (11th century), explained that it was Jacob’s faithfulness in God’s plan that led him to “keep the matter in mind,” and not punish Joseph for his haughtiness or his brothers for their jealousy. In the end, Jacob was right, and God’s faith was honored with the brothers’ promise to their father that they would worship the One God, too. Therefore, “keeping the matter in mind,” as he did, wasn’t a matter of his unknowing; it was a comment on his faithfulness. 

Jacob’s faith carried the day. It wasn’t a prayer for intercession that turned around the matter in their favor. It was faith that justice and mercy would prevail because their Source is in God. It was belief in God’s sway over the universe that brought justice and mercy to the hands of those who would be entrusted to preserve it for generations to come. 

Jacob’s blessings for each of his sons told of his expectations for them. Some were greater than others, but each one received a blessing. Even after all that, Jacob was still concerned that his sons would not honor his deepest hope, which was to honor the One God. So the rabbis explained that Joseph and his brothers, now speaking together, said to their father, Jacob (Israel), “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” Hear (us) Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” Upon hearing these words, Jacob (Israel) responded, “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed,” Blessed is God’s glorious majesty forever and ever. 

Hunger isn’t just physical. Hunger for spiritual bonds can be compelling. There are times when distance between family members means peace; but there are many more times when “keeping the matter in mind” gives room for family members to grow so they can return later and be part of the family system. The biblical story ended well, for the time-being, with blessings from the head of the household to all his children.  

Perhaps we can take a cue from the biblical story, too, and “keep the matter in mind,” instead of throwing anyone in a pit without water, as Joseph’s brothers did to him. The familiar poem by Alvin Fine reminds us, “From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love, from joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion, and grief to understanding— from fear to faith.” Where are you on your life’s journey, and what blessing do you want to grant your family member(s)? Keep the matter in mind and look for the good in your family. The words and the blessings may follow naturally.


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