The death of Nelson Mandela today, a giant of forgiveness and reconciliation coincides with the Torah reading this week, Vayigash, about Joseph who like Mandela was locked away in prison and persecuted, like him triumphed and rose to power, and again like Mandela repaid his tormentors with kindness rather than revenge.
A number of years after Joseph is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers, he meets them again. This time Joseph is not a lone defenceless teenager, instead he is a national ruler in Egypt. In a remarkable act of forgiveness Joseph tells his brothers; “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. For two years now there has been famine in the land... So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (1).
It is Joseph’s faith that leads him to see the cause of his being sold into slavery being God’s plan to save lives during the famine, rather than it being simply the result of his brothers’ cruel choice to sell him (2). This is surprising, as surely people must be held responsible for their own actions and intentions, rather than being let of the hook because of a positive end result (3). One suggestion is that there are exceptionally important circumstances such as the case of Joseph which had far reaching historical consequences in which God over-rides free choice and directs people to carry out his plan (4). A Chasidic approach sees much broader application of Joseph’s approach. It affirms absolute freedom of choice while also embracing full divine providence over every single object and every single occurrence with every object (5). This being the case there is no point in being angry or holding a grudge against anyone because everything that happens is the will of God (6). My discussions with a Sheikh last night showed me that some discussions in Islam on this issue were quite similar to those in Judaism.
The dignified prayer Vigil for Ukraine began with a reading that included a prayer to be “the one who forgives”. Yet, the violence this prayer vigil was addressing is continuing with students being brutally beaten in Kiev as we heard directly from people who witnessed it. It is not the time to think much about forgiveness. The priority now is that the violence stop and the rights of the people to protest are upheld. For some at the prayer vigil, the murder of 10 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s Russian government was seen as relevant to questions of the relationship with Russia today.
Last night I was deeply moved by another story about violence and dignity. We heard from the very eloquent, Hijab wearing, Najah Zoabi, a survivor of domestic violence. She talked about the first slap of an open hand against the skin of her face. About being devalued as a human being, constantly being told she was not good or beautiful enough until she believed it. She told how of the change in herself, from being raised with kindness and respect by her parents to feeling degraded by her husband. Eventually she sought and received help and healing from the Muslim Women Association and their support centre. It amazed me that the confident articulate woman speaking last night was able to triumph over the violence and abuse to be the person she is now and reclaim the dignity she enjoyed in her parent’s home.
I told the Ukrainian group of an experience I had in 1992 in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine. I danced outside the KGB headquarters around midnight on the Festival "Simchat Torah" when we celebrate the end of the yearly cycle of the Torah reading for the year. At that time it seemed that oppression by the state that my grandfather and his parents experience in Ukraine, was a thing of the past was a thing of the past. Sadly, it seems that dance was premature. However as we celebrated Chanukah this week, we hope and pray that once again freedom and dignity will triumph over violence.
Faith and grace can help us respond to violence in a variety of positive ways.
1. Genesis 45: 5-8
2. The classic Jewish concept that things that happen are ultimately part of God’s plan but wicked people will choose and have the opportunity to be instruments for the harsh components of the plan and good people will play the pleasant roles.
3. Abarbanel Genesis Chapter 45, Vayigash p 415
4. Abarbanel ibid.
5. The Baal Shem Tov as discussed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos Vol 8
6. Rabbi Schenur Zalman in Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 25