Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Taking the Moral High Road
What would you do if your brother did something unspeakable to you as a child? You were not in contact with him for twenty years. One day you find yourself in a situation where you are asking a powerful person to help you out only to learn that the person is your brother.
That is the story line in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44: 18- 47:27). It is the conclusion of the Joseph story, and it is filled with suspense, pathos and interesting insight into the human condition. One of the take-aways connects to an idea that I frequently invoke when talking to children – the idea of “taking the moral high road”.
The context of the narrative is that Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to seek food because of a famine in their area. Joseph, who is now second in power only to Pharoah, is the person they need to meet to ask for provisions. He recognizes his brothers but does not reveal himself to them. Instead he tests them in several ways – framing them twice, threatening imprisonment and sending them back to Canaan to bring back their youngest brother Benjamin.
The parasha (weekly selection) opens with Judah - the brother who, years ago, suggested selling Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Judah appeals to Joseph to imprison him rather than their youngest brother, Benjamin. He gives a litany of the trials that they have endured, and says that if he were to return to Canaan without Benjamin, their father would be deeply aggrieved and likely die from the pain of this loss. At this moment, the text says that Joseph is filled with emotion, he wails loudly, asks all of his servants to leave him alone with his visitors, and “makes himself known to his brothers” (Gen. 45:1)
Think about how Joseph was feeling at this point. What should he say to them? Isn’t this the time to admonish them, express his anger over past grievances? They tried to kill him many years ago, and their action led to his enslavement, false accusations, and imprisonment. Now he is one of the most powerful people in the land, and he has the opportunity to exact revenge, to express his anger. But he doesn’t. When he reveals himself, his brothers “recoil in fear” (Gen. 45:2) Joseph instead offers reassurance telling his brothers that all that has happened has lead him to be able to provide for them now. In this, he reminds me of Nelson Mandela who left prison and publicly chose not to seek revenge for his imprisonment. His goal was “to lead” to move toward a productive, healing future.
The go-to position for young children, and, unfortunately for many adults is to exact revenge when wronged by someone. The lesson in this parasha is that focusing on blame and anger immobilizes. Taking the moral high road of looking forward, not backward, leads to positive change. As we get another chance at a New Year, let’s all try to be more like Joseph and Mandela, not blaming for past grievances but improving the world by looking forward.
I wish you all a peaceful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
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