There’s a story told about a group of rabbis in Poland returning to their Yeshiva from a long journey to another town. They travel through thick forests and open meadows until one day they come to a raging river, where a beautiful young woman stands. She approaches the eldest rabbi and says, “Forgive me, Rabbi, but would you be so kind as to carry me across the river? I cannot swim, and if I remain here or attempt to cross on my own I shall surely perish.” The rabbi smiles at her warmly and says, “Of course I will help you.” With that he picks her up and carries her across the river. On the other side, he gently sets her down. She thanks him, departs, and the rabbis continue their journey.
After five more days of arduous travel, the rabbis arrive at their yeshiva, and the moment they do, they turn on the elder in a fury. “How could you do that?” they admonish him. “You violated Jewish law—you touched a woman who is not your wife!”
The elder rabbi replies, “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her for five days.”
The story illustrates the danger of carrying within us resentments that impede our ability to form strong bonds with others. This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, teaches the value of letting go. Following the cliffhanger on which last week’s Torah reading ends, Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob and full brother of Joseph, is in danger of being thrown in jail. The brothers were warned by Jacob to ensure no harm to Benjamin, and now they are all in mortal danger. Judah steps forward and approaches the Egyptian ruler before him and pleads for Benjamin’s life, offering to take his place for the sake of his father. The Egyptian ruler before him can no longer contain his emotions and reveals himself as their brother Joseph. The brothers are stunned. They are also probably terrified that Joseph may now truly unleash his fury and exact revenge for what they did to him years ago, selling him into slavery. The opposite occurs.
Joseph says (45:5): v’al yihar b’eineichem ki m’khartem oti heinah—do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here. Ki l’mikhiyah sh’lahani Elohim lifneichem—it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. He later says (8): v’atah lo atem sh’lahtem oti heinah ki Elohim—it was not you who sent me here but God.
Rabbi Harold Kushner notes in his commentary that God’s role was to sustain Joseph and guide him to bring something good and life affirming out of the unfairness afflicted on him. Joseph has the wisdom and strength to recognize this, and he is not interested in holding grudges over past slights. He wants to move forward and bring about healing.
This weekend the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95. He was the legendary leader of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and was its first post-apartheid president. In an uncanny way, his biography mirrors that of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery, suffered years in prison, and yet rose above it all when he was finally free and a leader. He never took revenge on his brothers; rather, he ensured their safety.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and yet when he ultimately became president he was able also to lead with a sense of dignity, fairness and even forgiveness. In reviewing the extensive obituaries over the last couple of days, the aspect of his legacy that stands out most for me is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he established during his presidency. The panel was devised to balance justice and forgiveness in a reckoning of the country’s apartheid history where the majority black population was systematically abused by the white minority and its regime. The panel offered individual amnesties for anyone who testified fully on the crimes committed during the apartheid period.
The goal of the TRC was to give victims of brutality a forum where their accounts would be heard and vindicated, where their dignity and sense of justice would be restored, and where they could express their grievances in front of the perpetrators themselves. In exchange for amnesty, the perpetrators had to drop their denials, evasions, and self-justifications and admit the harm they had done, including torture and murder. The commission emphasized the “need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [humanity toward others] but not for victimization.”
The goals of the TRC were inspiring, if not entirely honored in practice. The commission produced grumbling, mockery, protests, and anger. Many black victims of apartheid, such as the family of activist Stephen Biko, who had been murdered in prison, were furious at the provisions of amnesty to the perpetrators. Many white perpetrators did not apologize with anything remotely like true feelings of remorse, and many white supporters of apartheid were not interested in listening to the broadcast confessions of their peers. South Africa has hardly become a paradise; it is still suffering from poverty and high crime rates. Yet it averted a bloodbath. Solomon Schimmel, a professor of psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, traveled to South Africa, interviewing people across the political and cultural spectrum for his book on victims of injustice and atrocities. He expected to hear people describe their rage and desire for revenge. “What most impressed me overall,” he reported, “was the remarkable lack of overt rancor and hatred between blacks and whites, and the concerted effort to create a society in which racial harmony and economic justice will prevail” (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), pp. 255-256, iBook Edition).
Among his great achievements in standing for freedom and rebuilding a nation, Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a remarkable achievement.
Mandela’s passing this week on the eve of our reading of Parashat Vayigash, is yet another reminder that life imitates Torah As we reach the climax of the Joseph story this Shabbat in the Torah portion of Vayyigash, we are reminded of Nelson Mandela who, like Joseph, knew from an early age that he was destined for something special. Like Joseph, he spent many years in prison separated from his family. Like Joseph, it was in prison that he developed the skills — especially the ability to listen — that would later make him a great leader. Like Joseph, he had the fortitude to forgive those who were responsible for his imprisonment and to achieve reconciliation with them. Like Joseph, once regarded as part of a despised minority, Mandela ascended to national leadership. Like Joseph, as a national leader he was not without controversy and was far from perfefct. Nevertheless, he was able to steer his country through a crisis that, without his wise stewardship, could have led to civil war and complete destruction (from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg).
May God grant each of us the strength and courage to be inspired by Joseph and Nelson Mandela to repair the broken relationships in our lives.