Joseph would have had every right to punish his brothers. After reuniting with the men who had tried to kill him, sold him into slavery, and left him for dead, Joseph would have been perfectly within his right to seek vengeance. But in Parashat Vayigash, Joseph instead chooses to embrace his brothers and offer them full forgiveness, offering to use his power as an act of support and kindness, rather than as a weapon against them.
One of the beauties of the stories in Genesis is that we so often learn about the proper way to engage in family dynamics from the way that our ancestors engaged in their own skirmishes and disagreements. In some cases (maybe even MOST), we learn what NOT to do, ways NOT to behave. But in other places, we see beautiful expressions of humanity, near-perfect ways to engage with others in order to validate our own realities and help guide us to more healthy modes of communication and interpersonal relationships.
Joseph had experienced profound trauma in his life up to the point that his brothers arrived in Egypt. He had been shunned by his relatives for his hubris, even though it was at the hand of God that Joseph had his prophetic dreams in the first place. He had been sold into slavery in a foreign land, where he was sexually harassed by his master’s wife and eventually thrown in prison for his refusal to violate his ethics. He was left in jail even after helping others to overcome their incarceration, and was only let out upon becoming helpful to the ruler in power. Time and again, Joseph prospered despite his circumstances, not because of them. And along the way, it would have been perfectly normal for Joseph to have grown desensitized to the world, hardened by the difficulties he had encountered at the hands of others.
Joseph is obviously overcome with emotions when his brothers come before him. In the process of making himself known to them, the text says, “His [Joseph’s] sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” (Gen. 45:2) He is a man full of pain, full of anguish. Yet, he decides that it would be impossible for him to continue this charade without revealing his true identity. He decides that he has done enough hiding to protect himself, that he finally has the power to confront the reality of the situation as his true self.
But Joseph does not get defensive, lash out, or otherwise blame his brothers for his circumstance. Instead, he shocks them with his compassion. He declares, “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...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.” (Gen 45:4-5, 7-8) The brothers, for their part, are dumbfounded, left in shocked silence by the revelation. When they finally process what they have heard, they are terrified of their brother’s wrath, fearful that his kindness will be either a ruse or temporary. They spend much of the next five chapters trying to make amends, looking out for themselves and their wellbeing for fear that Joseph’s kindness will run out and their fate be as terrible as the one they tried to inflict on him.
Family trauma is a near certainty in the reality of human interactions. Every individual who has any family connection is, at some point or another, profoundly impacted for better and for worse by those interactions, and it can take a lifetime to process the accompanying feelings. The beauty of family is that these are the people in a person’s life who most intimately know and understand you, who most hold the power to lift you up and strike you down. This means, of course, that with intimacy and power comes the ability to inflict the deepest harm, to cause the greatest hurt exactly because of that knowledge of what will cause the biggest reaction. We are all, in some ways, both broken by, and also healed from our family.
Of course, the first step to processing trauma is to understand the thing that happened and to understand its consequences. More and more, our world is getting better at this. The rise of a new decade has brought a societal willingness to discuss the pain and suffering that each of us carries with us, and to try to understand the way those past hurts impact our understanding of our current selves. The healthiest people in our world are not those who have never experienced hardship, but are those that understand the hardships they have endured and are prepared to move forward as human beings with an understanding of how they are impacted by their past. Similarly, Joseph does not ignore what has happened to him. Instead, he accepts the journey that has led him to the man that he has become, and begins to appreciate the journey that got him to the point at which he is at, the second-hand man to Pharaoh himself. Joseph would never have been able to attain such a high post, nor would he have been able to ensure such wellbeing for so many others if he hadn’t been at the right place at the right time, even if what got him into that place was a seemingly endless string of wrong places and wrong times. Joseph does the personal work to be able to rationalize who he is and where he has come from, reframing his identity not as a victim, but rather as a master of his own destiny, a partner to the God that helped to guide him onto the “right” path.
This is not to say that the secret to processing trauma is simply to change one’s thinking. To claim such a thing is to minimize the suffering and the hurt that is ingrained into so many in such unfair ways. But we are not what happens to us. We are the product of all of our experiences, a culmination of all the moments that lead us to who we really are. To be defined by our trauma is to let those hurts win, to let those who hurt us win. Joseph demonstrates immense power in this moment, standing up and declaring his own self-awareness. Under further observation, it is quite audacious to claim that God has put you on a path of destiny, that the prophecy of supremacy over your brothers has finally come to fruition. The ego-centric youth of Genesis 37 has grown not into a humble, docile man, but rather a person who is capable of harnessing his own self-worth, who is able to speak of his own power with authority and integrity. Joseph is able to own his past while also maintaining control over his future, a beautiful image for how we, today, can better understand the process for working through our experiences.
Life is filled with beauty and bitterness, of triumph and trauma. When Joseph is forced to look his past in the face, he does so with strength and integrity. He is willing to name his own success, and is willing to give credit to his past for shaping his journey to his present. We have begun the first step, as a larger community, of acknowledging the pasts that have hurt us, of allowing for everyone to heal in the way that feels authentic and meaningful to them. We need to continue to do so more and more each day. And we also can learn how to take power over our own situation, and begin to understand how the things that have happened to us inform, not inherently become, what happens to us moving forward.
Joseph forgives his brothers. This is powerful, it is impactful, and it is surprising. We don’t all have the ability to forgive those who have hurt us. We don’t inherently owe our forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. But Joseph teaches us how to forgive ourselves for the places we’ve been in the past, and to love the people we are always becoming, regardless of the hardships that got us to this point.