There are rare and special moments when the world changes and a new possibility is born: when the Wright brothers in 1903 made the first man-made flight, or in 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, or when, almost 6,000 years ago, someone discovered that marks made in clay with a stick could, when the clay dried, become permanent signs and thus writing, and civilization, were born.
There is such a moment in this week’s parsha, and arguably it has had a greater influence on the course of history than any of the above. It happens when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers and then, while they are silent and in a state of shock, goes on to say these words:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God 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 God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)
This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.
It may be the case that God has forgiven before this. Certainly according to some midrashic readings of previous episodes, God has. But in the plain sense of the text, He hasn’t. Did God forgive Adam and Eve? Did God forgive Cain after he had murdered Abel? Probably not. He may have mitigated their punishment. Adam and Eve did not immediately die. God places a mark on Cain’s forehead to protect him from being killed by someone else. But mitigation is not forgiveness.
God does not forgive the generation of the Flood, or the builders of Babel, or the sinners of Sodom. Significantly, when Abraham prays for the people of Sodom he does not ask God to forgive them. His argument is quite different. He says, “Perhaps there are innocent people there,” maybe fifty, perhaps no more than ten. Their merit should, he implies, save the others, but that is quite different from asking God to forgive the others.
Joseph forgives. That is a first in history. There is even a hint in the Torah of the newness of this event. Many years later, after their father Jacob has died, the brothers come to Joseph fearing that he will now take revenge. They concoct a story:
They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. [Gen. 50: 16-18]
The brothers understand the word “forgive” – this is the first time it appears explicitly in the Torah – but they are still unsure about it. Did Joseph really mean it the first time? Does someone really forgive those who sold him into slavery? Joseph weeps that his brothers haven’t really understood that he meant it when he said it. But he did, then and now.
Why do I say this was the first time in history? Because of a fascinating recent book by an American Classics professor, David Konstan. In Before Forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea (2010), he argues that there was no concept of forgiveness in the literature of the ancient Greeks. There is something else, often mistaken for forgiveness. There is appeasement of anger.
When someone does harm to someone else, the victim is angry and seeks revenge. This is clearly dangerous for the perpetrator and he or she may try to get the victim to calm down and move on. They may make excuses: It wasn’t me, it was someone else. Or, it was me but I couldn’t help it. Or, it was me but it was a small wrong, and I have done you much good in the past, so on balance you should let it pass.
Alternatively, or in conjunction with these other strategies, the perpetrator may beg, plead, and perform some ritual of abasement or humiliation. This is a way of saying to the victim, “I am not really a threat.” The Greek word sungnome, sometimes translated as forgiveness, really means, says Konstan, exculpation or absolution. It is not that I forgive you for what you did, but that I understand why you did it – you couldn’t really help it, you were caught up in circumstances beyond your control – or, alternatively, I do not need to take revenge because you have now shown by your deference to me that you hold me in proper respect. My dignity has been restored.
Konstan argues that forgiveness, at least in its earliest form, appears in the Hebrew Bible and he cites the case of Joseph. What he does not make clear is why Joseph forgives. There is nothing accidental about Joseph’s behaviour. In fact the whole sequence of events, from the moment the brothers appear before him in Egypt for the first time to the moment when he announces his identity and forgives them, is an immensely detailed account of what it is to earn forgiveness.
Recall what happens. First he accuses them of a crime they have not committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. In other words, he is forcing them to re-enact that earlier occasion when they came back to their father with one of the brothers, Joseph, missing. Note what happens next:
They said to one another, “Surely we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. [Gen. 42: 21-23]
This is the first stage of repentance. They admit they have done wrong.
Next, after the second meeting, Joseph has his special silver cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. It is found and the brothers are brought back. They are told that Benjamin must stay as a slave.
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” [Gen. 44: 16]
This is the second stage of repentance. They confess. They do more: they admit collective responsibility. This is important. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery it was Judah who proposed the crime (37: 26-27) but they were all (except Reuben) complicit in it.
Finally, at the climax of the story Judah himself says “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers!” (42: 33). Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to become a slave so that his brother Benjamin can go free. This is what the sages and Maimonides define as complete repentance, namely when circumstances repeat themselves and you have an opportunity to commit the same crime again, but you refrain from doing so because you have changed.
Now Joseph can forgive, because his brothers, led by Judah, have gone through all three stages of repentance:  admission of guilt,  confession and  behavioural change.
Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognise that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation simply did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. To put it technically, Greece was a shame-and-honour culture. Judaism was a guilt-repentance-and-forgiveness culture, the first of its kind in the world.
Forgiveness is not just one idea among many. It transformed the human situation. For the first time it established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. And when I forgive I show that my action is not mere reaction, the way revenge would be. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of the past. It is the undoing of what has been done (a point made by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition).
Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.