TaNaCH is filled with examples of rape, violence, betrayal and murder, to be sure.
Yet, there are also moments of such deep forgiveness; it’s impossible not to be moved and inspired by them. They show the promise of the best that we can do.
Yosef reunites with his brothers, who almost killed him, with no rancor, with no blame, with no resentment.
People who are, by nature, not easily angered find it easy to forgive. But I don’t think Torah necessarily intends for us to understand Yosef as being this way. If he were, it would mean that he was naturally unfazed by others’ negative words and deeds towards him. Torah gives no such picture of Yosef. He tests his brothers before he reveals himself. His test might imply some hesitance – even conflict — in his own heart.
But his forgiveness of his brothers, if at first cautious, is ultimately filled with warmth and willingness.
For most of us, forgiveness can involve a struggle. We say that we forgive, but in our hearts, we still resent. A great many personal questions and issues must be faced, before true forgiveness – not the simple words, “I forgive you,” — can take place.
Forgiveness is often more of a gradual, than a sudden process. Yosef underwent that process. We can, too.
One great benefit of psychotherapy, in its various forms, has been to encourage us to accept our “negative” feelings as “human” and “natural,” as long as we express them (if and when necessary) in an appropriate manner. As I once heard a student say in a “Casework” class: “The ‘Gospel’ of therapy is that all feelings are OK.” We need not feel guilty about having these feelings or thoughts. Nor should we be surprised when we discover that others, even infants, have them, too. “Peace of mind,” in this sense, means learning not to be upset or disturbed by the feelings themselves, but somehow employing them instead as “stepping stones” in our growth as human beings.
If in life we fully accomplished only this and no more: “Dayyenu.”
But spiritual practice, especially in Hasidut, offers the vision of a step beyond even this one, to “spiritual purity.”
The word “purity,” often associated with “cleanliness,” can also mean “unmixed” – e.g. “pure gold” is gold unmixed with any other mineral. Spiritually, a “pure heart” is a heart “unmixed” with conflicting emotions and impulses. Yosef’s heart was pure, because his forgive-ness of his brothers was, in the end, unmixed with resentment at the wrong they had done not only to him, but to his beloved father, as well. The love we’d expect him to feel for his own brothers was unmixed with any desire to avenge himself for the ghastly, malicious treatment he had received at their hands.
To forgive, we must first look at the effect of not forgiving on ourselves.
If we have been wronged – and who hasn’t been, at some point? – we might feel justified in feeling anger towards the one who has hurt us. We are justified. But who is hurt most by our anger? We are. Our anger robs us of our own peace. Moreover, the unalterable spiritual truth, taught by every spiritual teacher, is that our real “peace” is the Divine Quiet in us. The first step in forgiving, then, is to know that Divine Quiet is the unchangeable essence of who and what we are. Divine Quiet is perpetually the pure state of our hearts and minds.
We can’t separate ourselves from it, but we can block our view of it by our own anger and resentment – just as a child can block the sun, by putting a penny against his or her eye.
If we choose to block the Divine Quiet that is always part of us, we give the person who hurt us once the power to hurt us over and over. We have not only given them the power; we have agreed, as it were, to do it for them. And we do it without any compensation for what we lost to begin with.
Forgiveness is not always achievable by intellect or self-control alone. It’s hard to imagine on what power a human being could draw, to achieve such purity, but that is the subtle message of Yosef’s forgiving of his brothers. Realizing the Divine Quiet in him, Yosef’s heart was gradually emptied of hurt and anger. Each moment of awareness of that Divine Quiet cleansed his heart of one more bit of turmoil. When we truly forgive, we find our heart filled with G-d’s Presence; filled with Divine Peace, Quiet, Light and Love.
It is a change that can seem almost miraculous. There are many miracles in TaNaCH, but none greater than a heart that has truly forgiven.
Did I say that “purity” means “unmixed,” and then name “four” Divine qualities?
In G-d, they are united as one, and they flower in the heart of the one who forgives.