“I love you.” The words tumbled across 3,000 miles, slurred, slow and plaintive. My cell phone suddenly a life preserver, they tore through my consciousness like a rip tide. Those words were my mother’s first for me in the chaotic aftermath of her stroke. Not “hello,” or “where are you?” And in that moment, every ounce of anger, resentment and bitterness I held so long for my mom, vanished completely.
Our relationship has been contentious for as long as I can remember. For almost all I struggle with as an adult, I have blamed my mother. Of the boatloads of therapy from which I’ve benefited, much as been directed towards unpacking the many dysfunctions of our relationship. I have spent decades fortifying my defenses against her relentless criticism and judgment, and fires of rage stoked by the abuse she both perpetrated and facilitated have burned since I was small. Specifics aren’t important. I have simply always been the black sheep, the problem child, and the easy target.
In the Torah, Joseph is the youngest brother of twelve and something of a pest. He’s portrayed as a tattle-tale, and their father’s favorite of his sons. Increasingly irritated with Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery and report his fictional death by wild beasts to their father. Joseph does surprisingly well in Egypt, rising to the position of Pharaoh’s trusted advisor and saving Egypt and neighboring states from famine.
It is easy to imagine the feelings Joseph may have harbored towards his brothers. Their actions were callous, cruel, and inexcusable. The hurt they caused Joseph and their father is incalculable. Joseph may have experienced righteous anger and profound grief. He may have replayed the events in his mind thousands of times, his bitterness towards his brothers gaining wild momentum. Such feelings would certainly have been justified.
When Joseph and his brothers reunite, it is because his brothers are seeking food from Egypt. In his role as vizier, Joseph holds incredible power over them. He can save them from slowly starving to death, or he may withhold sustenance completely. In this moment, he could choose to require exorbitant payment of any kind. He could berate and humiliate his brothers. He could confront them and demand some sort of justice. Instead, Joseph offers his brothers forgiveness and reassurance.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach Yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here but God; and He has made a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:4-8).
My mother is only occasionally vaguely aware of her present circumstances. She has lost all mobility on her left side, struggles mightily to express herself, and has difficulty swallowing. She cannot walk or eat solid food. Her comprehension of movies and in person conversations varies throughout the day. No one is certain if she is able to read. The anger I held so fiercely toward my mother has dissolved and I now find myself remorseful beyond measure for the time I’ve wasted on so much negativity. If I could tell my mother anything, it would be to echo the words of Joseph. “Do not be distressed or reproach yourself,” I might say. “It was to get me where I am now that God sent me with you.”
This week’s parshah provides a lesson not only in forgiveness, but in the incredible power of perspective. Joseph could have easily contextualized his story as one of unwarranted pain and trauma. He could have cast himself as a victim and his brothers as oppressors. Instead, he actively framed his own story as one of empowerment and sacred purpose. He chose to see himself as a unifier and one with the ability to bring peace and foster community. We all have such an opportunity. Our identities are shaped largely by the stories we tell ourselves – about our own lives and about our world. May we all be a little more like Joseph and choose to see ourselves as the beautiful, infinite lights we surely are. May we continue to rewrite our stories so that they support, rather than sabotage. May we spend our days in goodwill and harmony, rather than contention and division.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.