Sign In Forgot Password


01/03/2024 09:29:42 AM


Cantor Joanna Alexander

For three weeks, our Torah has focused on the family reunion of Joseph, his brothers, and then his father. The topic of T’shuvah and forgiveness have run throughout this difficult and meaningful reunion and this week's Parsha of Va-y’chi is no different. Va-y’chi also happens to coincide this year with the end of our secular year. We conclude the book of Genesis with the death of both Jacob and Joseph and the children of Israel settled and prospering in Egypt, next week, as the world makes resolutions for the new year of 2024, we will begin the book of Exodus. The story changes from that of a family of mono-theists, following the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, into the story of a people a mass of people, related by their tribal ancestral houses, but a mass of people brought together by slavery, persecution and ultimately the freedom won for them by God. Genesis ends with the enduring promise that “God will surely take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,” (Gen 50:24-25) Joseph tells his kin and his siblings, before dying and being embalmed in Egypt.  

We end the book with a promise, with hope. Let us also end the secular year with this possibility of hope. The story of Joseph and his brothers is one that we can relate to in our world today, perhaps not of desiring to kill our brother and compromising to sell him into slavery. But surely the struggle to know if we are able to forgive one who has done us wrong; the struggle to trust a relationship that has been damaged, even after forgiveness has been professed.  

After Jacob dies, his sons travel back to Canaan to bury him with his fathers in the cave of Machpelah. Here, fearing that Joseph has only forgiven them for their father’s sake, Israel's sons share a fib with Joseph stating:  

“Your father left this charge before his death, saying, ‘thus shall you say to Joseph: Please, I beg of you, forgive the transgressions of your brothers and their sin, though they inflicted harm upon you’; yet now please forgive the transgression of the servants of your father’s God.” (Gen 50:16-17) 

Joseph hearing this, weeps and restates not only his forgiveness, but his belief that this was God’s plan to enable him to save lives during the famine, AND that he will provide for his siblings and their little ones.  

Over the course of the last 3 Parashat, we have seen the fullness of t’shuvah from the brothers, they were given the opportunity to sin again (abandoning Benjamin, as they had sold Joseph) and chose a different path. They chose to prioritize their father Jacob’s needs over their own freedom, when Judah offered slavery instead of Benjamin. They wept together in reunion and stated apologies and forgiveness. But all the years later when Jacob dies, there is fear that Joseph has been biding his time stewing in his anger. Here, Joseph proves the trueness of his t’shuvah and forgiveness, not only does he re-iterate his forgiveness he has found meaning in the pain they caused him. 

As we enter our secular new year, as we enter an election year in America, as we turn the year recognizing that Israel and Gaza are still at war, that there are still over 100 hostages being held, Israeli soldiers are dying every day, and Gazans are dying by the hundreds or thousands every day. We have the opportunity to reach out to broken relationships. The opportunity to take a point of pain or hurt of fear from our past and see if we can overcome it and find true forgiveness. God does not demand that we forgive every act, especially not ones which are continuing or ongoing, but for those which are in the past, could we find more peace in our life by making space to let it go? Could we dedicate ourselves to sharing more love if the resentment and anger of a past pain were released.  

There are many painful things in the larger world that lead us to act in fear, hurt and anger. Most of these we have no control over. There will continue to be antisemitism, there will continue to be those who wish to make laws to control our bodies, there will continue to be racism, and micro-aggressions, and aggressive aggression. There will be those whose backs we have had, who disappoint us and do not show up for a cause we care for; there will continue to be poor policies on the environment; and use of weapons indiscriminate of the creations of God destroyed by them. Some things, like local laws, we may be able to fight or advocate for change, but most of the scary things in the world are out of our control, out of our power.  

So, we are left with how we control our response, our fear response, our hurt response, our hope response. We can choose, like Joseph, to seek the silver lining, placing our faith that God will be with us regardless of the depths of despair. We can commit to finding forgiveness for those who have wronged us whether they enact true t'shuvah, as Joseph's brothers did, or not. We can commit to hope rather than despair. 

Hannah Arendt argues that what transforms the human situation from tragedy to hope is the possibility of forgiveness: 

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover….Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. 

Rabbi Sacks states “Atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expression of human freedom—the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past, and the freedom not to be trapped in a cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Only those who can forgive can be free.” (p. 352 Covenant and Conversation: Genesis) 

For the sake of our own freedom, for the sake of our own future forgiveness is a gift, not only to those who have wronged us, but to ourselves. If we are unable to find forgiveness for those who have wronged us, what hope do we have of being forgiven for the wrong we have done. You might argue that what was done to me, I would never do to another. But we also know that hurt people, hurt people. Not always, not all the time, but it is a possibility. And surely, we know that we are not perfect, that we cause pain to others, sometimes we cause the most pain to those we hold most dear. Our capacity for forgiveness directly impacts our ability to move forward when we have hurt someone we love. And it directly impacts our ability to find hope for ourselves and hope for the world, for the future. If we are stuck with the worst thing we have ever done, so is all the world. If we can find forgiveness for the worst thing done to us, then perhaps the rest of the world has hope of t'shuvah, hope of forgiveness, hope of ending a tit for tat cycle of pain, anger, and fear. Perhaps we might know that our best days are ahead of us instead of behind us. That while humans have the capacity to cause immense harm and damage, we are rather stuck with one another and learning to forgive and find ways to move forward regardless of the pain caused to us, will be the only way to live with hope for the future world.  

Let us end this year of 2023, as Torah ends Genesis with forgiveness between Joseph and his brothers, and trust that God will surely take care of us.  

Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik 


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Tue, March 5 2024 25 Adar I 5784