Every New Year, I tell the parable of a king who was blessed with an only son. The king reared his son lovingly from childhood and rejoiced at his wedding. His greatest hope was for his son to live a life of integrity and virtue. But he was doomed to bitter disappointment.
The young man did not fulfill his father’s hopes and dreams for him. His behavior turned his father’s love into hostility, which caused his father to banish him from the kingdom. For many years the young man wandered from city to city, from village to village.
After years of wandering, the son yearned to return home. Finally, he found his way back to the palace, threw himself at his father’s feet, and implored him for forgiveness. “Father, father,” he cried out in anguish, “if you do not recognize my face, surely you must remember my voice, which has not changed.” At that moment the king realized that it truly was his son, and after a tearful reconciliation he was welcomed back home to the royal palace.
When the story is told on Rosh Hashanah, the message is clear. It is a parable about teshuvah (repentance and reconciliation) with God. It is a reminder that once we return home to the palace, or more precisely once we return to God, God will take us back.
Yet, on this first Shabbat of the secular New Year, and as we read parashat Vayigash, the story holds another message. It becomes a reminder of the power of teshuvah between a father and a son, or more precisely between one person and another. Secular New Year celebrations include making resolutions for the coming year, which more often than not includes reconciling challenging relationships from the year past.
Our parashah this week drives home this important message. As the parashah begins, Joseph is standing before his 11 brothers. Benjamin is accused of theft and is facing a punishment of imprisonment. The brothers fear returning to their father, Jacob, without him. Judah pleads on Benjamin’s behalf, offering himself in Benjamin’s stead, only to realize that the man with whom he is pleading is the man he had helped throw into a pit and sell, a long time ago. The relationship between Joseph and his brothers has been fractured for so many years.
Finally, at this moment in our parashah, Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. In this moment of reconciliation, he weeps upon the brothers, finally allowing the brothers to speak to him, after so many years of truly being unable.
What was it about that moment together that caused Joseph to finally reveal his identity to his brothers and behave in such a way that he was able to move forward a relationship that was so troubled?
The answer is teshuvah. Ramban teaches that complete repentance is done by the one who is confronted by the identical situation in which he transgressed and so it is within his power to commit the same sin, but he does not succumb, not out of fear or weakness, but because of true repentance.
Joseph’s brothers were faced with the same scene from earlier in their history. Years ago, they threw Joseph into the pit and reported his false death to their father, Jacob. Would they be willing to return home without Jacob’s beloved Benjamin, or had they repented? Was history to repeat itself or would the story, and the family, move forward?
Judah — the brother who suggested years ago that Joseph be sold — finally stood up for what he knew was right and pleaded for Benjamin’s release. Seeing that Judah had done true repentance, Joseph was moved to reveal his true identity and open the lines of communication between himself and his family, ultimately paving the way to be reunited with his father Jacob.
Reconciliation is not a simple matter. The challenge exists for both the one doing the repentance and the one who is willing to welcome someone back. It takes a willingness on the part of the one doing repentance to work toward finding his metaphorical way home. At the same time, it takes openness and willingness to receive the person home. When it comes to our relationships with God, it is clear that God is willing to take us back home, when we make the effort to return. Yet, with our human relationships that is often the challenge; ensuring a willingness to accept someone’s teshuvah and resume a relationship.
This is the work we face entering this secular New Year. Our resolutions are for naught if we are unwilling to appreciate other’s repentance and begin to work toward repairing the damaged relationships in our lives. Joseph reminds us of rising beyond one’s past and moving forward.
This first Shabbat of 2017 should be one of going forward together.