Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Daniel Stern.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about Jacob’s blessings to his sons and grandsons, who are the heads of the tribes of Israel. This was followed by Jacob’s death along with the mourning and burial process.
After that we come to a section that I find particularly interesting. Genesis 50 verses 15 through 21 describe events between the sons of Jacob after his death. Joseph’s brothers, who had been very envious, planned to kill him, and eventually sold him into slavery, were fearful that even after nearly twenty years of living in Egypt, that their brother would finally seek revenge. Joseph had confessed to them in an emotional reunion that he was still alive and had told them that he forgave them, explaining that although they wished him harm, God had used it for good and many lives were saved including their own because of it. He went so far as to bring Jacob their father and their entire households down to Egypt, even after all of that they were fearful that he was still holding a grudge against them and had not taken revenge on them previously only to spare their father pain.
Since Jacob had passed on, however, they thought that he would now execute his master plan and take vengeance upon them. The brothers were so terrified that they sent Joseph a message informing him that Jacob’s last wish was requesting that Joseph not harm his brothers. There is no mention of Jacob ever saying that; in fact, I don’t think that he ever gave such instructions. It never truly happened, but the brothers were so afraid of Joseph’s wrath that they lied to him, suspecting that only his love for their father would save them. When Joseph heard this message from his brothers, the Bible tells us that he wept. The scriptures don’t tell us exactly why, but I think it was because he realized that even after so many years his brothers still couldn’t comprehend his mercy, they couldn’t fathom the fact that he had indeed truly and honestly forgiven them. In their minds, the crimes they committed against him were too great and nothing could ever erase them. They assumed that the time had come for them to pay the price for all their iniquities. Joseph must have realized that his brothers feared him, that the loving family relationship he thought they had didn’t exist, therefore he wept out of sorrow.
Oftentimes, we also think that when we’ve done something unacceptable, that it must be too terrible for God to forgive us. Such sins and feelings can cause us great despair and anguish, resulting in overwhelming, crippling shame which drives us further into darkness. However, what does the bible tell us about situations like these?
Romans 6:23 says,
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:23 [NIV]
The punishment for sin is death; capital punishment, for instance, is given only to the worst of the worst. In Israel, only one man has ever recieved the death penalty. His name was was Adolf Eichmann and he was one of the chief engineers of the Holocaust, the wages for his sins equaled death. According to Romans, in God’s eyes our sins deserve the death penalty, which is a deep and sobering thought. Although in that very same verse, the Bible also explains how God gave us eternal life through Yeshua. In Hebrews 9:14 it is written that through the blood of the lamb, God expunges our death penalty. Unfortunately, we are like Joseph’s brothers, who just can’t wrap their heads around the possibility that Joseph had actually forgiven them. In that same way we have a hard time accepting God’s forgiveness because our sins seem too gruesome to bear.
Now don’t get me wrong, our actions still have consequences. If I harmed someone and I apologize, that isn’t the end of it. There are many verses in the Bible that lay down the laws and rules about repayment of damages which can be found in places like Exodus chapter 21. Many passages speak of the spiritual consequences of sins, such as the beginning of Isaiah chapter 59. Repentance is only the first step on the path of reconciliation, Luke 3:8 tells us that repentance must be followed by fruit. Words are not enough, there must be deeds to back-up the words, actions that show true repentance. In the past, the sacrificial system was in place in order to give men a means of expressing the fruit of their repentance. This occurred up until the destruction of the temple and Yeshua’s sacrifice on the cross, who bore all our sins.
I believe this is what was missing in our Torah portion. Joseph was one of the most powerful men in the world, meanwhile his brothers came to him on their knees, begging for food to survive the famine. What could they have possibly offered him? What could they have done to compensate for the way they treated him? 17 years went by and during which they had not done anything to atone for their crimes, and because of that they were afraid. However, Joseph didn’t seek anything from them, rather he just wanted to be their brother, to be their family.
Joseph told them not to be afraid, he had to repeat that multiple times, he spoke kindly to them and reassured them. He explained that despite their plan to harm him, God’s plan was greater and that He used their actions to save the world.
I want to finish by reassuring you that even if you have a dark sin in your past that you can’t come to terms with, God is able to forgive you. Further, I want to encourage you to remember the words of David in Psalms 103:12:
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. – Psalms 103:12 [NIV]
God’s mercy is so vast that if we truly repent of all our sins he will cleanse us. What can mere mortals offer the creator of the universe? Absolutely nothing! God doesn’t need anything from us except our hearts, he simply wants to be our father and family.
This article originally appeared on Netivyah, December 31, 2017, and reposted with permission.