Debt Forgiveness: Parashat Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash
Genesis 44:18-47:27

As we read our Torah portion during this Jewish Sabbatical Year (Sh’mittah), many have noticed the stark difference between the economic plan developed by Joseph to help sustain the Egyptian people during their seven years of famine, and the later 7-year plan commanded by the Torah for the Jewish people in the Promised Land. (See my discussion in Sparks for 2012) Some have written harsh condemnations of Joseph, calling into question the traditional characterization of Joseph as “the Righteous One.” They righteously protest: How righteous could Joseph be if he conceived a plan that reduced the Egyptian people to servitude?

But I would suggest that, although the Joseph plan is tellingly rejected by the Torah, there is, nonetheless, an aspect of the Sabbatical approach that the Joseph story exemplifies very well. And it an aspect that should challenge us to be careful in how we read the story overall. That element is the law of cancelling debts every seven years.

This requirement is quite amazingly fulfilled by Joseph, but not in economic terms. Rather, the debt owed to him by his brothers – for having tried to murder him and for having sold him into slavery – that debt – is completely cancelled and forgiven by Joseph, to the utter shock of his guilty brothers. Of course, such debt-forgiveness does not excuse what the brothers did! But Joseph understands that God wishes Joseph and his brothers to reconcile for the sake of being able to build a better future together. And he is strong enough to rise to the task!

I would suggest that the spirit of debt-forgiveness is an essential quality to have for us as readers of this text and as students of history, ancient or recent. The wrongdoings of past actors, people who have often been elevated to heroic stature, must be recognized for what they are. (See my Sparks for Vayishlah of this year.) But instead of cancelling any appreciation for anything else these people have done, we should weigh when cancelling their debt is the appropriate response for going forward. This is an immensely challenging question. We must grapple with this question, even if we may not always get the answer to it right. And then we can only hope that future generations might apply the Torah’s ideal of debt-forgiveness to our own failings.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein

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