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Joseph, Mandela, and The Power of Forgiveness Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Friday, December 13, 2013

This week, the world came together to mourn the passing of one of its most influential and well-respected leaders and visionaries, Nelson Mandela. A tireless fighter against apartheid, and a crusader for human rights around the world, Mandela strove to bring peace and democracy to all corners of the globe. Renowned for his warmth, his passion, his wisdom, and his spirit, he leaves behind him a legacy that will endure throughout the ages.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Nelson Mandela was his seemingly unending capacity to forgive. If anyone had a right to be angry and seek revenge against those who wronged him, it would be Nelson Mandela. Forced to live as a second-class citizen in his own country. Thrown in jail for 27 years. Vilified by those who labeled him a “terrorist” and a threat to peace. But somehow, Mandela was able to rise above it all. He bore no ill will to those responsible for his plight. After being freed from his imprisonment, he remarked "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

His power to forgive united a nation. When he came into power in the first democratic elections in South Africa, there were those who feared he would exact vengeance against the white minority community responsible for so much suffering in his homeland. Surely one who had been the victim of such cruelty would find a way to hold the perpetrators accountable for their trespasses against human dignity and freedom. But Mandela refused to be vindictive. He understood that violence and anger would lead to an unending loop of sorrow and pain for his beloved South Africa. He reached out to the white community and helped them understand that he had no desire for war and strife, only peace and reconciliation, which, for Mandela, meant that he must forgive. In his own words, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace.”

I thought about the journey of Nelson Mandela while reading this week’s Torah portion, Va’Yechi, the final chapter of the Joseph story and final parshah in the book of Genesis. Like Mandela, Joseph experiences the long and winding journey from prisoner to a head of state, from the depths of the pit to the heights of public office. After being flung into a ditch and sold into slavery, he rises up to become second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. And, after testing his brothers to see if they had truly changed their ways, he finds himself reunited with his family, including his father, Jacob. Their happiness is somewhat short lived, as Jacob passes away after blessing his children and his grandchildren.

After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers begin to worry. They are concerned that with their father gone, Joseph would choose this moment to take his revenge upon them for their prior misdeeds. In a midrash, the rabbis envision that on the way back to Egypt from Canaan, where Jacob was buried according to his wishes, Joseph happens upon the pit that his brothers threw him into that fateful day. He takes a moment, and thinking about how far he has come, he silently utters a praise to God. However, his brothers see him looking thoughtfully at the pit and believe him to be plotting their demise. They assume that he still harbors resentment towards them, but did not act upon it for the sake of family unity while Jacob was still alive. But after Jacob’s death, they believe all bets are off. What were they to do?

Joseph’s brothers come up with a plan. They send a message to Joseph, saying it was their father’s final wish that he forgive his brothers for any offense they may have done to Joseph. They concoct this story as a way of tugging at Joseph’s heartstrings and hopefully ensuring that he does not seek vengeance upon them. The ploy works perfectly, as Joseph reassures them of his love and devotion to them, promising to take care of them and their children. In the end, after all Joseph had been through, he forgave his brothers for their heinous transgressions. Like Mandela, Joseph was able to overcome his feelings of anger and sorrow to build a brighter future.

Both Nelson Mandela and Joseph remind us of the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness has the ability to both reunite a family and unify a nation. But the path towards forgiveness can be rocky and steep. Too often friendships can be torn asunder by an unkind word or thoughtless action. Bonds that once seemed unbreakable give way to anger and mistrust. In those moments, the last thing we may want to hear is an apology from the one responsible for our pain.

Though we are taught in Leviticus that we may not hold grudges and we are forbidden from hating our neighbor in our heart, these lessons are far too easily forgotten when we are feeling angry and upset. This is why Jewish tradition reminds us about our obligation to forgive those who have wronged us. In a famous teaching, we learn that if a person asks for our forgiveness three times, we are compelled to grant it. But if we fail to absolve him of his transgression, it is now our responsibility to seek forgiveness from him for our cruelty in his time of vulnerability. In addition, Judaism also teaches us that when we act in a forgiving and compassionate manner, we are actually imitating God. For just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to humanity when we go astray, so is it our obligation to be forgiving to those who have injured us. And finally, it is said that the true mark of a descendant of Abraham is the strength and courage to be forgiving.

Granting pardon to those who have hurt us can feel like an impossible task, particularly when we feel like trust has been broken or our values have been assailed. Sometimes the hurt seems all-encompassing – we are surrounded by our anger and despair. We may believe our wounds are too deep, too raw to allow for reconciliation. We might even be tempted to take a drastic step and cut off all communication with the person who hurt us, ending the relationship once and for all. But this is not the Jewish way.

We must always be ready and receptive to the apologies of those who wronged us, accepting their olive branch of reconciliation when it is offered. Though forgiveness may be challenging, it is also rewarding. For when we open our hearts to those seeking our forgiveness, when we allow a space for repentance to take place, we can repair the breach in our relationships. Granting someone pardon is thus an act of tikkun, through which where disharmony and discord once existed, we can create peace and fellowship. Also, by relieving them of the burden of their wrongdoing, we also free ourselves from carrying the heavy weight of our resentment and anger. We do ourselves no favors by allowing our negativity to fester.

As we go forth from this place, let us always remember the examples of Joseph and Nelson Mandela, who, through their ability to forgive those who wronged them, brought peace to the world. Let us follow their inspiring examples and make every effort to pardon those who have caused us pain. For when we live in this way, we cause peace to reign in our world. Shabbat Shalom.

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