We know from our reading of Breishit that God gave Adam dominion over the animals. He is even given the power to name them, a clear sign that he is in control. But on what is that control based? The Torah is noticeably silent on that question. Why are human beings dominant over the rest of the natural order?
Some people have assumed that the answer is obvious. But it’s not really so clear when we dig a little more deeply. So many theologians, psychologists, and philosophers have tried to answer that question. For Aristotle, we are the rational animal. For others, we are tool makers. Marx argued that we are the only animals capable of productive labor. Many have claimed that human beings alone have a soul, and that means we are truly created in the image of God. Though all of these answers have some merit, I want to suggest a different possibility which emerges from this week’s Parshah.
That Parsha, Vayigash, is one of the most beautiful of the Torah. Its seemingly straightforward narrative belies the many unanswered questions embedded there. It relates the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers, a telling that moves from alienation, sibling rivalry and cruelty to care, compassion and reconciliation.
We realize from the Parsha how much Joseph has yearned for a re-connection to his family, despite what his brothers have done to him. Midrash tells us that Joseph has remained faithful to the mitzvot for more than 22 years, observances that were his alone in Egypt. Perhaps he weeps for his loss of Jewish community beyond his immediate family. We also see him weep with Benjamin, his full brother from his beloved mother Rachel,-the only other fully innocent character in this narrative. He weeps for the mother he has lost and the brother he has found.
We are told that Joseph’s sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharoah’s palace. Joseph the Tzaddik is moved to tears by his brother Judah’s pleas for the life of Benjamin and Judah’s offer to take Benjamin’s place in prison to avoid further heartache for their father Jacob.
This story is an incredible story of forgiveness. Listen to the words of the Torah at the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharoah, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
In Joseph’s words we seem to have found an answer to the question of why he forgives his brothers. It was God’s plan that depended on their selling him into slavery, a plan that includes his imprisonment and rise into Pharoah’s inner circle. He forgives them and lets them know that the difference now is not in him but rather in them. No longer jealous or angry, they feel shame and fear before him. They finally see their own sins and guilt and as a result of these insights, they are able to pass the tests Joseph had designed for them.
Not only does Joseph forgive them, he refrains from referring to years of suffering or to what they have done to him. As we read these passages, we cannot help but be reminded of other stories of jealousy-between Rachel and Leah, between Jacob and Esau. These stories frame the story of Joseph and his brothers and at last provide us with a sense of peace and reconciliation after the noteworthy silence about these other rivalries.
Why forgive? There are lots of good pragmatic reasons to forgive-to end a feud, for example. To think about how self-poisoning resentment becomes if one doesn’t forgive. But the primary reason to forgive, it seems to me, is to restore a lost relationship. Remember that it’s often those closest to us who have hurt us and need forgiveness. Think about someone you have finally forgiven or want to forgive. My guess is that it’s not some anonymous stranger who cut you off on the highway. Those little injuries evaporate quickly. Wrongs from those closest to us do not. So, forgiveness matters because the people closest to us-Joseph’s brothers, for example-matter. Who are we without them? What does that isolation cost us?
In answer to our original question about what might separate us from the animals, perhaps the answer is forgiveness. This may be because forgiveness may run counter to all of our basic instincts for survival.
There are no rules for forgiveness. Joseph forgives his brothers and goes far beyond forgiveness to restore them to life and health and property and standing. But he gains even more for himself through his act of forgiveness. Through his forgiveness he becomes whole again.
So may it be for all of us. Amen.