Memory and Reconciliation

Miketz By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 11, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

What ought to be the role of memory in our lives is the conundrum that lies at the heart of this week’s parasha. Just how much of our experience is retained by us, or should be? Is mental health better served by remembering or forgetting? How deep must we dredge into the sediment of our minds to retain or regain the ability to function? A recent study of women on welfare, immune to the prescriptions of tough love, showed how many were once the victims of constant child abuse, which left untreated, impaired them for life. They needed to be healed before they could be restored to the work force. In the narrative form the Torah takes up this subject subtly but profoundly.

Joseph was surely the victim of a violent instance of child abuse, inflicted not by parental misdeeds but the jealousy of his brothers. Admittedly he was bright and brash, incited at least partially by the arbitrary preference of his widowed father. Still the unwarranted assault on his life by all his older brothers was nearly fatal and utterly ruthless. In this week’s parasha, we learn the poignant detail that throughout the ordeal the brothers turned a deaf ear to Joseph’s repeated pleas for mercy (Genesis 42:12).

How revealing then that Joseph, once ensconced as Pharaoh’s viceroy, should name his first son from his aristocratic Egyptian wife “Manasseh” meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home (Genesis 41:51).” In contrast, on his second son he bestowed the name “Ephraim” signifying, “God has made me fertile in this land of my affliction (41:52).” I find the sequence of these names a window onto Joseph’s inner turmoil. His thrice-told tale of ascendancy in Egypt was a function of forgetting. He had to put out of mind the betrayal, humiliation and rupture that landed him in Egypt before he could recover to master the challenges of his alien surroundings. To brood on the wrong done to him would have only paralyzed him and destined him to languish in menial servitude. Ephraim could never have preceded Menasseh. The renewal of Joseph’s creative energy sprang from soil cleared of psychic debris. To forget was a matter of will.

And yet while the wound healed, the scars remained. The truth is that we are unable to expunge all traces of our memories. Beneath the surface of our conscious reality, the embers of our hurt smolder. So when Joseph’s brothers appeared one day before him in all his awesome power, perhaps not unexpectedly (other Canaanites must also have come seeking food), he quickly began to devise a plan to determine if they were unchanged from the men who had ignored his tears and terror, or whether grief and remorse over their dastardly act had transformed them. Reconciliation called for cleansing, not just forgetting.

The brothers, for their part, were full of painful memories. The undiminished grieving of their father over the years may have brought them to the brink of self-recrimination many times. They did not volunteer the idea of journeying to Egypt for food. Jacob, who did, rebuked them for not acting resolutely to avert calamity, “Why do you keep looking at one another (Genesis 42:1)?” Did guilt deter them from daring to go?

In Egypt, Joseph accused them straight out of being spies and incarcerated them for three days. The turn of events drove them to connect what was happening to them to what they had done to Joseph. After three days of isolation, they confessed their guilt to each other, within earshot of Joseph: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us (42:21).” Joseph, overcome with emotion, could barely restrain himself. But he sought more. Contrition was not the same as transformation.

In the end, Joseph adroitly manipulated events to offer his brothers the opportunity to rid themselves of Benjamin, the only other son born to Jacob by his beloved wife Rachel. No need for guilt feelings; Benjamin was caught allegedly stealing the viceroy’s silver goblet. Jealousy could now act with impunity. History had been made to repeat itself. But the brothers had actually changed. They did not seize the moment. On the contrary, they were terrified at the prospect of losing Benjamin. Trapped in a predicament without exit, they must have been flooded with images of Joseph sobbing helplessly at the bottom of that barren pit. And like him, utterly vulnerable, they begged for mercy. Judah, who had proposed the sale of Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites headed for Egypt, gave voice to their impotence: “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found (44:16)”. In short, all the brothers were ready to endure the fate they had once forced upon Joseph. When Joseph insisted that slavery awaited only the one guilty, Judah offered himself in Benjamin’s stead. He could not bear to see his father disintegrate in grief. At last, the moment of reconciliation had come.

On the basis of this exquisitely artful narrative, I would venture the opinion that the Torah draws a distinction between the tasks of getting on with our lives and repairing them. In the first, where the aggrieving person is not accessible, we must offset our feelings of resentment and rage by submerging what we have endured into a meaningful context. This is the gift that Joseph’s faith in God granted him, a sense of order that alleviated the inescapable presentness of past hurts. After their father’s death, Joseph shared with his brothers the perspective that sustained him: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people (Genesis 50:20).” The conviction that there was significance to his misfortune kept Joseph from becoming incapacitated.

But when it came to being reconciled to his brothers, the ultimate level of healing, Joseph required more than divine insight. He needed incontrovertible human evidence of a deep and lasting change of heart. The damage done to his own soul could be repaired only through his brothers’ genuine remorse expressed in deeds. In this instance, remembering fully rather than forgetting partially was the key to his renewed well-being. In truth, to diminish the intensity of our memories softens only the symptoms of our underlying condition. And yet when the longed-for reconciliation eludes us, we are grateful for the power to transcend our setbacks. “God is near to all who call, to all who call to God with integrity (Psalm 145:18).”

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Miketz are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.