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Parshat Vayigash: D'var Torah by Karen Weinthal, December 15, 2018

19/03/2019 02:56:47 PM


This week we are looking at Parsha Vayigash, which continues the story of Joseph. At this point he has risen high in the Egyptian court, to 2nd in command, as a result of his interpretations of Pharoah’s dreams, particularly the one indicating an upcoming  7 year drought and famine, which the Egyptians were then able to anticipate and prepare for. He is in charge of dispersing the food. The famine eventually brings his brothers to Egypt to get grain, where they come before him, unaware he is their brother.  But Joseph recognizes them, even after a separation of 20 (22?) years.  Under questioning he discovers Jacob, his father, is still alive, and his brother Benjamin remains with him in Canaan.  He manipulates them to bring Benjamin to him.  He puts his brothers through some tests, including hiding a valuable  goblet in  Benjamin’s bag, to assess what kind of people they have grown up to be: if they have become better people than those who threw him in the pit. Through their compassionate concern towards their father and Benjamin and Simeon’s offer to be punished in Ben’s place, Joseph is convinced they have changed for the better. He reveals himself to them, and arranged for Jacob to come to him.

There are 2 parts to this parsha. First, Jacob is brought to Egypt and reunited with his youngest, and most beloved, son. Then there is a long list of all the other members of Jacob’s family, which numbers 70, although that is disputed and debated, depending on different ways of including and excluding people, and how it is all added up. What I found most interesting was how this group of 70ish became the large population of the Exodus 400 years later.

However, the question that intrigued me was: Why did Joseph forgive his brothers the terrible cruelty they put him through as a young man? Why, as he held great power, and had justifiable reason to act with anger and revenge, did he embrace his brothers and settle his whole family safely in Egypt?

He forgave them.  And I would like to explore the theme of forgiveness.
We all know the quotation: To err is human; to forgive, divine.’ A quotation probably more famous than the man who first said it. (Anybody? Alexander Pope) But actually to forgive is human, too and we do it for our own good.  

This is the theme of the theme: Forgiveness isn't something you do for someone else. It is something you do for yourself.

All major religious and spiritual  traditions extol the value of forgiveness. So what does it mean? It means letting go of the hold a person, or situation, has on you.  It consists of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and blame of the offender. It involves developing an increased understanding of situations that can lead to hurt and anger. It involves a shift in perspective, leading to greater freedom and peace of mind. 

But it is often so hard. We feel what we feel.  We often have good reason for the negative feelings.  Others have let us down, disappointed us, caused us problems, frustrated, angered, embarrassed us. . . . and on and on. 

Let’s look at what forgiveness is and is not, what effects it actually has on our mental and physical health

Forgiveness is :
-    a choice that we make for ourselves, self focused
-    a release from holding resentment
-     moving on beyond the experience
-    “closing the door on the past, but keeping the window open” so that we learn from our experiences
-    attempting to appreciate a larger picture
-    healing 

In other words forgiveness does not even necessarily require any involvement of another person. Our lack of forgiveness is not a punishment to them, it is a burden to us. It is not about changing another, it is about changing ourselves.  And like so many other self improvement strategies, it is a technique that improves with practice. We can practice with small things – forgiving someone who butts in ahead of us, makes an insulting comment, and then move on to the big ones: the neglectful parent or the philandering partner.

In relation to others, forgiveness provides the opportunity to consider the experience of the transgressor, to build compassion for the other if possible. It can be a recognition that we feel angry when we do not get what we want or when people do not act the way we want them to.

And sometimes the need to forgive is directed to ourselves. Have you ever said (or thought) “I’ll never forgive myself for . . . “  

What forgiveness is not:
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean you are pardoning or excusing the other person's actions.
•    It is not to be confused with acceptance. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean condoning their behavior. 
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven.
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean you shouldn't have any more feelings about the situation.
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is okay now.
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean you should forget the incident ever happened.
•    Forgiveness doesn't mean you have to continue to include the person in your life.

It can mean changing your perspective.  In psychological therapies it is sometimes called ‘Cognitive Reframing” , Putting another frame around an old picture. A person's point-of-view depends on the frame it is viewed in. When the frame is shifted, and when the focus is on the positive, the meaning changes and thinking and behavior often changes along with it.

Back to Joseph: He has reframed their betrayal of him in his youth as part of a Divine master plan that puts him in a position to save his family. As he reveals himself to his brothers he urges them not to be distressed and angry with themselves for selling him into slavery because of this greater good. By not acting out of vengeance and retaliation J. chooses to insure his and future generations, survival.  

There’s an old Buddhist story that illustrates how we can develop forgiveness.  Somebody throws a stone at you and hits you with the stone.  The buddhist teacher says. Who are you angry with?  And you would say “I’m angry with the person”. The teacher says “it was the stone that hit you , not the person so why aren’t you angry with  the stone?”  “I am not angry with the stone because the stone had no intention. Its just an inanimate object.  It was thrown by the person so I am angry with that person.”  And the teacher says “You should not be angry with the person because the person is just like the stone helplessly thrown by their pain,  So if we understand this way of thinking it will help us to build understanding and forgiveness.

The experience is reframed, eliciting compassion, and suggesting that an act of aggression may be the acting out of a person in pain.  
But for the good of our own health we let go of the anger, hurt, fear, and move on.

We don’t know out of what pain or neglect or inattention from their father Jacob, the brothers committed their heinous act.

Another Buddhist teaching is: Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Joseph models letting go of anger for his own well being. And in refusing to allow anger to take over his life and vengeance to define his actions, to permitting anger to destroy him, and compounding the damage already done to him, he retains control over his own life. He can choose freely how to respond to his brothers.

Now this is not to say that we accept, condone, pardon, forget, ignore our feelings or excuse hurtful action. It is to say forgiveness is good for your mental and physical health.  There is a growing amount of research looking at the effects of forgiveness on health.

Fred Luskin, a research associate at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention has been a prominent researcher in the field.  He has studied the effects of forgiveness training he developed that drew upon the principles of cognitive disputation, mindfulness meditation and guided imagery. He has published a book, Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. From his study, The Stanford Forgiveness Project he concludes:
 The practice of forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger, hurt, depression and stress and leads to greater feelings of hope, peace, compassion and self confidence. Practicing forgiveness leads to healthy relationships as well as physical health. It also influences our attitude which opens the heart to kindness, beauty, and love.

Several studies have looked at the effect on cardiac disease of psychological interventions,  including working on forgiveness Those in the intervention had significantly improved cardiac health compared to the randomized controls who had not received the intervention. Granted it is hard to know exactly what role forgiveness played but the indication was that it may improve health., in all aspects.

Choosing not to forgive, to hold on to resentment, anger and blame over an extended period of time, can increase stress levels and have negative effects on different aspects of our lives:

In our bodies it can result in muscle tension, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and digestive issues. 

In the mind it can affect our concentration, problem solving, and decision making. Think of the terms “hot-headed” or “let cooler minds prevail” to consider what resentments and anger do to our ability to think clearly.

Our Feelings are affected: 
•    anger, shame, feeling discounted or ignored, invalidated, lashing out: say things we regret later, withdrawal or becoming silent, harbouring anger, feeling of unfairness/bitterness

Holding on to negative emotions can affect us socially: May isolate us from others, shut down intimacy. Resentment disconnects us

And it may affect us spiritually, block us from feelings of peace and joy.

According to Alex Lickerman, MD, former director of primary care at the University of Chicago hospitals, 50 percent of all people who have had a heart attack can describe at least one emotional trigger that may have led to their illness. Every time you relive a painful memory, your autonomic nervous system rises up to fight the oppressor, 
 unloading stress chemicals to prepare you to fight or flee the situation, whether it is immediate or from something that happened a long time ago. Karol Ward, author of Worried Sick, says, “Eventually the physical tension becomes so habitual that we don’t notice how much we are holding our breath, locking our knees, or clamping down our jaws, until it shows up as physical pain.” Or possibly a heart attack.

The Forgiveness Project is a secular organization founded in 2004 They collect and share stories from individuals and communities who have rebuilt their lives using narrative/stories moving through the steps of hate, hurt and healing.  They have a program for young people, prison inmates, victims of war and occupations, among other groups. And they focus on themes to provide a framework for telling forgiveness stories: 

1.    Feeling pain and anger: initially anger is empowering, it validates our feelings, our behavior, it feels good.  But the downside to anger is the physiological reaction it creates in our body. It becomes a toxic emotion to hold onto.
2.    Being curious.   Wondering why. Moving from ‘why me” to ‘why them’? Recognizing there is another side to the story.
3.    Forgiving yourself.  Self study. Acceptance of our own faults. Letting go of regret and self pity.
4.    Developing empathy.  The ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and broadening your perspective beyond yourself.  Empathy has been described as a skill that can be developed and lack of empathy is a disability that can be overcome.  
5.    Transforming the impulse for revenge. While thoughts of revenge and retaliation may initially bring relief, they become obsessive and self destructive. Forgiveness grows out of our ability to transform revenge impulse through a search for meaning – through Curiosity and empathy.
6.    Transforming hate. Something must be given up to stop  the cycles of hate and revenge impulse. It is a surrendering of the justifiable grievance, grudge and resentment.  By forgiving, you let go of your grievances and judgments and allow yourself to heal.  Hate-hurt- and healing

So - Did Joseph know this when he embraced his brothers? When he sent the finest wagons, provisions, clothes, silver with them to bring Jacob to him, and settled his whole extended family safely in Egypt?
As the favoured child did he consider the experience of his brother’s childhood? Did he recognize negative effects of the stress of carrying anger and resentment on his physical and mental health? Did he choose to forgive his brothers to avoid having a heart attack? 

We’ll end with a Buddhist forgiveness enquiry: 
For the ways I have hurt and harmed others
Betrayed, abandoned them, caused them suffering
Knowingly and unknowingly
Because of my pain, fear, anger and confusion
I ask forgiveness.
For the ways I have hurt and harmed myself
Betrayed, abandoned myself, caused myself suffering 
Knowingly and unknowingly
Because of my pain, fear, anger and confusion
I ask forgiveness
For the ways I have hurt and harmed myself
Betrayed, abandoned myself, caused myself suffering
Knowingly and unknowingly
Because of my pain, fear, anger and confusion
I offer forgiveness
For the ways other hurt and harmed me
Betrayed, abandoned me, caused me suffering
Knowingly and unknowingly
Because of their pain, fear, anger and confusion
I offer forgiveness.

A lesson from this parsha is that change is always possible.
And forgiveness is good for all aspects of your health. 

Shabbat shalom.

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784