Judah has passed the test so elaborately contrived by Joseph. Twenty-two years earlier, it was Judah who had proposed selling Joseph into slavery. Now Joseph - still unrecognized by his brothers - has put him through a carefully constructed ordeal to see whether he is still the same character, or has changed. Judah had changed. Now he is willing to become a slave himself so that his brother Benjamin could go free.
That is all Joseph needed to know. Now, at last, he reveals his identity to his brothers in a moment of intense emotion. The most important feature of the scene, however, is Joseph's complete forgiveness for what the brothers had done to him all those years before.
"And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that G-d sent me ahead of you . . . G-d sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d . . ."
Joseph makes no reference to the brothers' plot to kill him or to the fact that they had sold him into slavery. He makes no mention of the lost years he spent, first as Potiphar's slave, then as a prisoner in jail. Not only does he forgive them: he does everything possible to relieve them from a sense of guilt. He tells them that they were not really responsible; that it had been G-d's plan all along; that it had been for the best, so that he could save lives during the years of famine, and so that he could act as their protector in the years to come. It is a moment of supreme generosity of spirit.
Nor is this the only such moment. Five chapters later, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph repeats the act of forgiveness. Jacob has died, and the brothers now fear that Joseph will take revenge after all. They are afraid that his apparent friendliness was merely a way of biding his time until their father was no longer alive (recall that Esau said: "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob"). This is what Joseph said on that second occasion:
"Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of G-d? You intended to harm me, but G-d intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
It is sometimes said that Judaism lacks the concept of forgiveness. Occasionally the claim is more specific: in Judaism, G-d forgives; people do not. This is simply not so. Here is how Maimonides puts it:
It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit . . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel. (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2: 10)
Nor is it necessary for the offender to apologise:
If one who has been wronged by another does not wish to rebuke or speak to the offender - because the offender is simple or confused - then if he sincerely forgives him, neither bearing him ill-will nor administering a reprimand, he acts according to the standard of the pious. (Deot 6: 9)
Why then is there so little reference to interpersonal forgiveness in the Bible? It is not that G-d forgives, while human beings do not. To the contrary, we believe that just as only G-d can forgive sins against G-d, so only human beings can forgive sins against human beings. That is why Yom Kippur atones for our sins against G-d, but not for our sins against other human beings.
The reason lies elsewhere. The Bible is a book - a library of books - about the relationship between G-d and human beings. It is about heaven and earth, Divine command and human response. It is not primarily about interpersonal relationships at all. Once the Torah has established the principle of human forgiveness, which it does here in the Joseph narrative, it does not need to repeat it.
Note how profound the passage really is. Joseph does more than forgive. He wants to make sure that the brothers, especially Judah, have changed. They are no longer people capable of selling others into slavery. The "Truth and Reconciliation" process established in South Africa by Nelson Mandela could only come about once apartheid had been ended. It would have been absurd for the victim to forgive while the crime was still being committed or while the criminal was still unrepentant.
Nor is it Judah alone who has to change. So does Joseph. He has to rethink the entire sequence of events. He no longer sees it in terms of a wrong done against him by his brothers. He sees it as part of a providential plan to bring him to where G-d needed him to be ("So then, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d"). He thinks not only of the moment twenty two years earlier when he was sold as a slave, but of its long-term consequences. It is as if Joseph has to come to terms with himself before he can do so with his brothers. That is why forgiveness lifts the one who forgives even more than the one who is forgiven.
But the real significance of this passage goes far beyond the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is the essential prelude to the book of Exodus and the birth of Israel as a nation. Genesis is, among other things, a set of variations on the theme of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The book begins with fratricide and ends with reconciliation. There is clear pattern to the final scene of each of the four narratives:
1 Cain/Abel Murder
2 Isaac/Ishmael The two stand together at Abraham's funeral
3 Jacob/Esau Meet, embrace, go their separate ways
4 Joseph/brothers Forgiveness, reconciliation, coexistence
The Torah is making a statement of the most fundamental kind. Historically and psychologically, families precede society and the state. If brothers cannot live together in peace, then they cannot form a stable society or a cohesive nation. Maimonides explains that forgiveness and the associated command not to bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18) are essential to the survival of society: "For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. The Torah emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong shall be quite obliterated and be no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes civilization and human relationships possible." (Deot 7: 8).
Forgiveness is not merely personal, it is also political. It is essential to the life of a nation if it is to maintain its independence for long. There is no greater proof of this than Jewish history itself. Twice Israel suffered defeat and exile. The first - the conquest of the northern kingdom followed a century and a half later by the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile - was a direct consequence of the division of the kingdom into two after the death of Solomon. The second - defeat at the hands of the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple - was the result of intense factionalism and internal strife, sinat chinam.
When people lack the ability to forgive, they are unable to resolve conflict. The result is division, factionalism, and the fragmentation of a nation into competing groups and sects. That is why Joseph's forgiveness is the bridge between Genesis and Exodus. The first is about the children of Israel as a family, the second is about them as a nation. Central to both is the experience of slavery, first Joseph's, then the entire people. The message could not be clearer. Those who seek freedom must learn to forgive.
There should be no shame in admitting a mistake
Credo - 2003
There's a story told about the legendary head of IBM, Thomas Watson. On one occasion a senior manager made a serious business mistake that cost the company ten million dollars. Watson summoned him to his office. "I guess you want my resignation," the manager said. "Are you crazy?" Watson replied. "We've just spend ten million dollars educating you."
If there is one truth humanising above others in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is that it's OK to make mistakes. Not just OK - it is of the very essence of life in the presence of G-d. By giving us freewill, G-d empowered us to make mistakes. That is what makes us different from, and more interesting, than the angels.
We are not just computers programmed to sing the praises of our maker. By forming us in his image, the creative G-d made the one being in the universe capable of creativity - and there is no creativity without risk, no risk without occasional failure, and no failure without new self-knowledge. More than through the things we get right, it is through the things we get wrong that we learn.
G-d never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge them when we make them, apologise, make amends, heal the relationships we harmed, and commit ourselves not to make the same mistake again. That is what turns failure into a learning experience. It's the cluster of ideas the Bible calls repentance, atonement and forgiveness. It is what makes biblical cultures more humane than their alternatives.
We owe to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict the fundamental distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. In shame cultures what matters is how we are seen by others. In guilt cultures like Judaism and Christianity, what matters is the voice within - conscience, what Freud called the superego, the moral values we internalise and make our own. In shame cultures a person is judged by the honour in which he or she is held. In guilt cultures there is no way of escaping the still, small voice that calls to us as it once called to Adam and Eve saying, "Where art thou?"
Shame cultures seem to lack the idea of forgiveness. If you've done wrong, the most important thing is to hope no one will find out. Once they do, there is no way of removing the stain of dishonour or the loss of face. Depending on time and circumstance, the shamed hero either goes off to fight and die in a distant battle, or flees to some remote country, or (in the old British theatrical tradition) disappears offstage to do the decent thing with a loaded revolver in the library of a country house. Shame cultures produce literatures of tragedy.
Guilt cultures produce literatures of hope. King David sins - seriously, as it happens - is confronted by the prophet Nathan and immediately confesses. So do the inhabitants of Nineveh when Jonah finally reaches them and tells them of their impending doom. They are given the greatest gift a culture can confer: the chance to begin again, not held captive by the past.
It seems to me that Britain, once biblical in its values, has now become a shame culture. What counts today is public image - hence the replacement of prophets by public relations practitioners, and the ten commandments by three new rules: Thou shalt not be found out, thou shalt not admit, thou shalt not apologise. It's a bad exchange. A shame culture turns mistakes into tragedies. A guilt culture turns them into learning experiences. I know which I prefer.