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extending the circle of forgiveness

12/12/2021 11:17:41 AM


This is the d'var Torah I gave at Shabbat Services on Friday, December 10.  During that service, the streaming was interrupted periodically.  People asked me to post my d'var Torah, so here it is!

My husband David’s mother, Dorothy, was close friends with her cousin Dottie when they were both children. That all changed when Dorothy’s parents took offense at something that happened at a family funeral. Apparently, Dorothy’s parents felt slighted when they were not invited to ride in the car carrying the more prominent mourners to the cemetery.

As a result of this perceived slight, Dorothy and Dottie were no longer allowed to continue their friendship, and their rift lasted for decades.

This happened a long time ago, but I would guess that is sounds rather familiar today. Given the stresses of the time we live in, we all too easily take offense at the words and the actions of others.

The Torah’s narrative about another family drama provides an interesting perspective for us.

For years Jacob lived with the agonizing grief of having lost his favorite son, Joseph, whose brothers had sold him as a slave. They led their father to believe that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal by tearing Joseph’s distinctive coat and splattering it with goat blood.  In other words, they manufactured evidence designed to cover up their crime of having sold Joseph into slavery.

In Vayigash, the third installment of the Joseph story, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, and Jacob’s sons return to Canaan and tell their father that Joseph is indeed alive and is the ruler over all Egypt.

Jacob’s heart goes numb with the news, and it took him some time to believe what his sons told him.

The narrative does not tell us whether Jacob asked his sons: What about Joseph’s torn and bloody coat you showed me? Nor does the Torah reveal whether Jacob knew or even suspected what his sons had done to Joseph years earlier.

Really, how could Jacob not have had some suspicions about how Joseph could possibly be alive after all? Maybe that is why Jacob’s heart went numb.

 At the end of the Joseph story, after Jacob dies, his sons, concerned that Joseph would finally seek revenge, send a message to Joseph.

The message reads: “Before his death your father left this instruction: so shall you say to Joseph, ‘forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’”

Again, the Torah’s narrative doesn’t give us a clue about whether this was a genuine message, or one manufactured by the brothers to save themselves from possible revenge.

The Torah is silent on the question of whether Jacob ever figured out what his sons did to Joseph.

And this silence gives us the opening to wonder:  If Jacob suspected that his sons kidnapped Joseph, sold him as a slave, and then deliberately manufactured a cover-up – how could Jacob have possibly lived with his sons? How could he not have disowned them for their crime?

 One possibility is that Jacob decided to overlook his suspicions or explain them away. Maybe he thought that he misidentified the torn and bloody coat his sons showed him decades earlier.  Perhaps Jacob decided to overlook his suspicions for the sake of family unity.

In any given family, there is dysfunction. In Jacob’s family – there is more than the usual amount!

But in all families, family members must decide which wrongs they will cling to, and which wrongs they will release. If family unity is valued, then forgiveness is more likely to be freely offered within that family.

Think of the story of the family funeral.  Young Dorothy’s parents decided they had been insulted because they were not in the “right” car to go to the cemetery.  Such a little thing! And they could not let this wrong go. As a result, Dorothy lost her close friend, her cousin Dottie. Family unity was clearly not the most important thing for Dorothy’s parents.

Functional families make it a habit to overlook the little faults and forgive the little wrongs of its members. Functional families put up with “Uncle Charlie’s” bizarre conspiracy theories because, well, he is family.

The same holds true for friendships.

If we can overlook the faults and forgive the wrongs of people in our closest circles, might it be possible to do that for others?

When an unmasked stranger in a grocery store stands too close to us when we are picking out our produce, rather than think “this buffoon wants to give me COVID,” is it possible to catch ourselves and say instead, “I guess that person must have a lot on his mind, and he is unaware that he is too close to me.”

Or when we hold the door open for someone, and that person breezes inside without so much as a word of thanks, is it possible to refrain from judging her to be a discourteous jerk, and think instead: “wow, she must be lost in her own worries.”

These small acts of forgiveness represent important spiritual work for the time in which we live.

I will end with this question. If we can re-frame our thinking and broaden the circle of people to whom we extend grace by overlooking their little faults and forgiving their little wrongs, how might we be changed for the better?


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782