A Note on the Weekly Torah Portion
Imagine the funeral procession: The leaders of the most powerful nation on earth paid their respects. Thousands of people traveled thousands of miles to attend. The departed was the great patriarch, who was nothing less than the father of a new nation.
This is how Jacob’s funeral is described in this week’s Torah portion – Parashat “Vayechi.” As we all watch the events mourning Nelson Mandela this week, we can turn to “Vayechi” to understand what matters about this momentous event.
Now what? What happens “after the funeral”?
In the wake of Jacob’s death, his sons are anxious. Will their brother Joseph – now in a powerful position of leadership – take the opportunity to avenge the way they had treated him. Remember, they sold Joseph to slavery and caused his imprisonment. And so they pleaded:
“Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis, 50: 17).
As it turns out, Joseph leads the family in a process of reconciliation. Though he endured slavery, imprisonment and maltreatment, he forgives.
We could end our reading here, but we would be missing something crucial about forgiveness – Joseph’s and Mandela’s.
Dr. Tariq Ramadan commented on Mandela’s legacy, that “the courage to forgive comes after the courage to resist.” Forgiveness and reconciliation come here at the end of the process. For Joseph and for Mandela, forgiveness does not mean reconciling yourself to being oppressed by others. Forgiveness comes from a position of power. It is the virtue and wisdom of the victor.
Aristotle argued that the key to a virtuous life is practical wisdom (“phronesis”). This is the wisdom to understand what the situation calls for. A time to forgive and a time to resist. A leader knows the difference.
Yes, the wisdom to forgive is crucial for any community charting its way “after the funeral.” But to reach this point, we must first have the courage to overcome oppression and to challenge social injustice.