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Not Mind Readers Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

December 19, 2015

He was standing there, looking into the pit where his brothers’ had thrown him, so many years ago. He was on his way back from his father’s burial. Otherwise he would never have passed that way again.

He was thinking of how far he had come from the obnoxious, self-centered, arrogant teenager he had been at age 17, and he was thankful that with all the ups and downs in his life, here he was, reunited with his family,  father to his own sons, and making a significant difference in the lives of so many people.

His brothers noticed him standing there- and they reached their own conclusions about what he might be thinking, looking into the pit, remembering their mistreatment of him, their lack of empathy, their cruelty in separating him from his father for some many years.

The Midrash paints this scene in explaining the incident that Kate mentioned in her Dvar Torah, that is the brothers coming to Joseph after their father’s death and telling him that their father, before he died, asked that Joseph forgive them. The rabbis find this section of the text surprising, because nowhere is there any evidence that Joseph or the brothers shared with their father the true story of how Joseph ended up in Egypt. Without knowing what had really happened there would be no reason for Jacob to ask Joseph to forgive his brothers.

At that time, following the burial, there was a meal of comfort. Based on the Biblical text which talks about Joseph’s brothers as one unit and Joseph as another, the rabbis conclude that Joseph did not sit with his brothers at this meal of comfort.  For Joseph it was awkward. As long as their father was alive, it was Jacob who offered the motzi to begin the meal. But now that their father was dead, who would do that? At some level it should be Joseph, he led the family. But he was one of the youngest of the brothers. He did not want to stir up old resentments and so he sat to the side. His brothers saw this differently. While our father was alive, he sat with us. But now look, he is separating from us already. Note the great gulf that emerges, not merely from the action, but from how it is understood. In both cases, at the pit, and at the dinner, there is no double checking of interpretation, instead the brothers are confident that they are seeing into Joseph’s mind and Joseph would have been shocked to learn that he had stirred up mistrust and fear just by acting in a way that seemed natural to him.

Sometimes we act in ways that seem fine to us, and then are surprised to find that we have hurt another person’s feelings, sometimes very profoundly.  Though we think we can see how others are thinking and feeling, actually we are not that good at reading minds. Because we sometimes miss the mark in anticipating the ways that our words or deeds might hurt another person, sometimes we have to ask for their forgiveness. I didn’t realize that this would hurt you, we say. I didn’t intend to upset you.

But I think this famous midrash comes to urge us to think about this possibility in the other direction, that is when we are on the receiving end of a hurtful word or action. When people do or say things that cause us pain, we should take a moment to check in before being sure about their intentions and motives. It may feel very callous of them to take mother’s brooch, totally discounting the closeness of our relationship with her, but perhaps they weren’t thinking of that at the time, just remembering a day when they held it in their hands and fastened it on her neck. When they shared our private secret with another person, they may not have been thinking about how they would hurt us, but instead worrying over their own standing in the eyes of that third party. It doesn’t make it right but it may make it less directed against us and in that way more forgivable.

Our tradition gives us many reasons to forgive.  First it stresses that we cannot ask others or God for forgiveness if we do not forgive others. Second, it notes how much damage we do to ourselves in keeping a grudge. It is like carrying a hot coal, it will burn us more than the other person. But to me the most helpful advice from our tradition is about not creating that story of hurt and resentment in the first place.  Joseph forgives his brothers as he comes to see their actions as part of a much bigger story, one which includes his pain and theirs, as well as a much broader landscape. If we can reframe that which happens to us, then we don’t have a story of resentment, that we  rehearse and solidify in our minds, and which becomes a wall against forgiveness.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, is also an observant Jew who is in the synagogue on a regular basis. Therefore I didn’t see it as coincidence that his article at the beginning of this week was about the possibility of reconciliation even of terrible and longstanding wrongs. The wrongs are still wrong, but there are ways of moving forward. He concludes with these words:

“Even after a tough year, we are born into a story with a happy ending. Wrongs can be recognized, memories unearthed, old hurts recognized and put into context. What’s the point of doing this unless you’re fueled by hope and comforted by grace?”
Let’s go into the new year of 2016, with this hope for ourselves and for our world, that we can push through the wrongs of the past and come to a place of reconciliation and peace. 

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