Jewish guilt: It’s optional

January 19, 2012

I would like to talk today about guilt, a subject that we Jews are self-proclaimed experts on. Why is that?  “Jewish guilt” is something that we all joke about, something that we all feel bonded over. There are many theories as to why we are so good at guilt. One of my favorites is that we, more than many peoples of this world, feel the particular weight of our history. For us, the past looms large — in the Torah, in our wandering through the world; through our struggles with Crusaders and Cossacks and Nazis through the centuries, we have more than our share of baggage to lug through the generations. We also know that we’re a part of a very special people, with very high expectations of ourselves — and that alone is enough to make us quite neurotic.
It’s clear from the Torah that guilt was around even in the earliest days. As we finish the Book of Genesis today, we find the brothers of Joseph burdened by their past mistreatment of their brother, and full of fear of Joseph's retribution. We are told that once their father, Jacob, has died, the brothers are particularly terrified of Joseph.  They join together and plead with Joseph, they even fib, saying that before he died, their father Jacob had said that he wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers. Hearing his brothers talk this way, the Torah tells us, “Vayevk Yosef b’dabram eilav” — "And Joseph wept hearing them talk like this.”


Why did Joseph cry?  Most of us hear this story, and we think that Joseph is crying because, even after all these years since he revealed himself to his shocked brothers, they still don't trust him. They still think that Joseph has been bearing this grudge against them all these years, and the only reason he didn’t attack them was that his father Jacob was still alive. Now, with their father dead, the brothers feared that they had no more protection.  And so Joseph cried because he saw how they never believed that Joseph had forgiven them.
But in the Midrash, there’s a hint that Joseph’s tears are not just his hurt that his brothers still don’t trust him.  The Midrash says, “Vayar Achei Yosef,” “And the brothers saw that their father had died...”  What did they see now that caused them to fear? They saw that when they returned from the funeral of Jacob, Joseph stopped at the pit that they had thrown him in to say the blessing that one is obligated to say at a place where a miracle happened to him... When they saw this, they said, “Now that our father is deceased, we fear that Joseph will hate us and avenge all of the evil that we did to him.”


So this Midrash is pointing us to something very interesting: It’s not that they didn’t trust that Joseph had forgiven them before. But now, says the Midrash, the brothers saw Joseph looking down at that pit that they threw him in all those years ago, and this, just after he buried his father Jacob. And what are the brothers feeling at that moment? Guilt. Horrible guilt. They felt guilt because they knew that their past travesties shortened their father’s life. They felt guilt because they all remembered what Jacob had said to Pharaoh when he first met Pharaoh. Jacob had said, “M’at ura’im hayu shnei y’mei chayay,” “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the span of my fathers during their sojourns.”  They all knew that Jacob died younger than his forefathers. He died younger because he lived for so many years with a broken heart — broken because he thought he had lost his beloved son Joseph. At that moment, standing at the pit, the brothers panicked because they realized that the final consequence of their dastardly act all those years before had come to pass: Their father died too soon. And Joseph knew it. Joseph knew that if the brothers hadn’t been so cruel, they would not be burying their father. In short, the brothers were wracked with guilt. And it was in seeing this guilt that was so destroying his brothers, in seeing that, Joseph cried.


But in all their guilt, the brothers failed to truly understand that Joseph was a Tzadik, a righteous and very great man. Joseph’s response to his brothers’ guilt is one of the greatest and most powerful lessons in the Torah. He says: “Have no fear! ‘Ki hatachat Elohim Ani?’ ‘Am I a substitute for God?’ Besides, though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — ‘lahachayot ’am rav’ — ‘the survival of many people.’ ”


Joseph was crying because he saw how guilt was tearing apart his brothers’ hearts, and led them to project their worst nightmares onto their brother Joseph. But Joseph comforted them by telling them that their guilt, and their subsequent fears — while natural — were not necessary. Joseph was telling his brothers a message that we all need to hear: If you're tearing yourself apart over something that you feel that you did wrong, something terrible, even something that you feel is unforgivable; just remember one thing: We’re not God. We think we’re such experts on what was supposed to happen and what was not supposed to happen. Some of us are so sure that we “shouldn’t have” done whatever we did, that we will spend the rest of our lives punishing ourselves.
But Joseph was coming from the deepest wisdom of our tradition. To this day, whenever we experience something bad that happens, something like death, or any terrible occurrence, we say, “Baruch dayan ha’Emet,” “Blessed is God, the True Judge”; or we can translate it as “the Judge of Truth.” What it means is that the Truth, which sometimes plays out over many years, even over many generations, is the ultimate judge of our actions.  We may think we’re so sure that we did the wrong thing, but we can’t absolutely know that it “shouldn’t have” happened.


Now of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recognize our wrong actions, or that we shouldn’t attempt to make amends in every way that we can. No, the brothers did a terrible thing. And it did cause unspeakable heartache for their father, and it did shorten his lifespan. What Joseph is trying to say is that guilt itself is optional. To this day, many of us actually believe that we should make ourselves feel guilty, that we should punish and berate ourselves — because only then will we be truly penitent. But Joseph shows his brothers that the only thing guilt does is that it destroys our souls, and it makes us paranoid.


Joseph’s tzedek, his righteousness, is a great teacher to all of us who sit here now, weighed down by whatever guilts we may know. His tzedek shows us all that if we feel guilt, we can welcome it as an important teacher to us. It shows us where we feel that we have done wrong, where we have made a mistake, where we need to make T'shuvah, to become better. We can acknowledge it, we can make amends, and once we have done that, we’re done with it. It’s no longer necessary because we’re not God. It’s not our job to berate ourselves or others over what we feel guilt about. Our job is simple: to strive to be like Joseph; to learn from the pain of the past, but not to be defined by it. Our job is to derive wisdom from the past, not to be chained to it; our job is to humbly move forward with the insight we have gained. No matter what wrongs we have done, each moment that we’re alive, we have so much power to do good. May our guilts and our past sufferings indeed be our teachers. May we teach forgiveness by learning first and foremost how to forgive ourselves. And may we, like Joseph before us, use our forgiveness “lahachayot ’am rav” — for the sake of life, the lives of countless others.

Gil Steinlauf is the senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in the District.

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