Forgiveness & Atonement

Forgiveness & Atonement
Older and younger hands reaching out and holding one another with the word "teshuvah" (repentance & return) next to a heart at the bottom.

How does forgiveness happen? Does a victim decide to stop being trapped by the past? Or must a perpetrator also repent? In Parshat Vayigash, the two are connected.

Years ago Joseph’s older brothers sold into him slavery and presumed him dead. But now, Joseph is a high-ranking Egyptian minister. His older brothers have come to buy food from him. But they do not recognize him.  So, to get their attention, Joseph frames his younger brother Benjamin for theft. Then, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin as a slave. But the older brothers try to prevent Benjamin from the fate they once chose for Joseph. 

Only then does Joseph “make himself known” to his brothers. After Joseph sees his brothers have changed, he opens himself to the possibility of renewed relationship. But he also explains that he, too, has changed inside. He tells his brothers not to feel guilty about their past abusive treatment of him.  “It was all part of God’s plan to bring me to this place,” Joseph says. On the one hand, Joseph has already forgiven them. But, on the other hand, he waits to see their repentance before he speaks of forgiveness.

This story suggests that inner change and interpersonal forgiveness go hand in hand.  Only after the brothers become parents themselves do they act and speak differently. And only after Joseph reframes the story of his life is he ready to accept his brothers’ apology.

This two-part view of forgiveness shows up at Yom Kippur, too. On that day, we try to engage in all parts of this process: examine ourselves, ask forgiveness, and accept apologies from others.

Inspired by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Dr. Barry Gan 

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