Former President Gerald Ford passed away on Tuesday.
Ford was the only person in America’s history to date who became president without ever being elected to national office. In 1973 he was serving as House Minority Leader, a Congressman from Michigan. He was appointed Vice President in 1973 after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace after it was revealed he had been taking bribes and kickbacks for much of his career. He then ascended to the nation’s highest office when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
During his relatively short tenure in office, President Ford’s most controversial action was his pardon of Richard Nixon. Many people in the country were disgusted by the things that had come up in Watergate – that the President participated in a cover-up of a burglary committed by Republican party operatives on the Democratic Party’s National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
Many people felt that even after he resigned, Nixon should have been charged and brought to trial. Many people felt that no one is above the law, and it would be wrong to let Nixon slip quietly away into the night.
But when Gerald Ford looked at the situation, he saw that allowing the case to go forward would be very difficult for the nation. It would be a long, protracted case, and Ford feared the impact a long court battle would have on the nation. In his remarks when he signed Nixon’s pardon, Ford said “During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.” Ford felt it was possible that Nixon would not be able to obtain a fair trial; he felt it very well might be found that Nixon had been denied due process.
But more than any concern for Nixon, Ford was concerned about the impact on America. He said “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
Ford felt it was time for the nation to move on. To put the difficult period behind us. And so he pardoned Nixon.
Interestingly, we find a similar message in this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash. Joseph pardons his brothers for the way they mistreated him. Joseph’s pardon allows the family to move on.
This week’s parsha opens with the most powerful piece of oratory in all of scripture: Judah’s impassioned plea with Joseph not to imprison Benjamin, who had been accused of stealing Joseph’s cup. Joseph, overcome with emotion, reveals his identity, and there is an emotional reconciliation between the brothers.
When Joseph reveals his identity, he tells his brothers not to be grieved or angry with themselves that they sold him into slavery. Within a few short verses Joseph repeats not once, not twice, but three times that it was not his brothers that sent him to Egypt but God. He was letting his brothers off the hook.
How are we to understand Joseph telling his brothers that it was God that sent him to Egypt?
Many commentators through the ages have taken Joseph’s statement literally. That by selling Joseph into slavery, Joseph’s brothers were fulfilling God’s will. God wanted this to come about. According to this point of view, everything that happens, happens because it is the will of God. There are statements elsewhere in the Tanach that promote this theology: in Isaiah God says of Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian king who conquered Israel, “I will send him against a hypocrite nation.”
Some Chasidic commentators elaborate on this by saying it is impossible that Judah and his brothers, the founders of the tribes of Israel, could have done something so horrible, God forbid, as sell their own brother into slavery! Instead, on some level they knew they were fulfilling the will of God by sending Joseph off to Egypt.
I believe this theology, that even really terrible things that happen are the will of God, was sorely lacking to start with, and I believe that the Shoah, the Holocaust, killed it off completely. There is nothing that the Jewish people could have done in the years leading up to the Shoah that was so terrible that the Nazis could somehow have been fulfilling the will of God with their affliction of the people Israel. Such an idea is repulsive; such a God I would run away from.
So we are left to find another explanation for Joseph’s troubling words. Sforno in his commentary on this verse echoes the Rambam, who said everything is attributable to God’s will, because everything has a cause, and ultimately you get back to the “First Cause,” what Aristotle would call the “Prime Mover,” and everything that happens is therefore ultimately caused by God, and therefore is God’s will.
This explanation is still somewhat dissatisfying to me. While I can accept it intellectually, it only works because it’s making Joseph’s statement about God’s will indirect. In effect it says that it’s God’s will that we should have free will, and so bad things we do with that free will are, at least indirectly, the will of God. However, it does not seem genuine to me that at this critical juncture in Joseph’s life, at the moment of reconciliation with his brothers, he would choose to give a philosophy lecture. Joseph must have had some other motivation for making this speech, and especially for repeating it three times.
Perhaps Joseph was just trying to make his brothers feel less embarrassed by their repulsive behavior by saying that it’s OK, everything turned out fine in the end. But this is a very problematic ethical position. If a person does something evil, and there is a good unintended side effect, it does not make the original act any less evil. Besides, we can’t even really say that this was the best possible outcome. We don’t know what might have happened if Joseph hadn’t been sold off. If God wanted to give us the Torah, couldn’t God have found another way to do it than forcing us to live in slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years?
We can learn a completely different lesson from this episode. We can learn something about how to accept the challenges that life deals us, and move on. We can learn how to avoid being paralyzed into inaction and getting wrapped up in our own conflicted emotions over past grievances.
By telling his brothers that this was part of God’s plan, Joseph is telling them “I can’t completely forgive you for what you did to me. Selling me into slavery was a horrible thing to do. But I’m glad to see that you have done teshuva, that you have repented, you have changed your ways. In the end, everything worked out fine, so let’s chalk it up to the mysterious ways God works and get on with our lives.” When Joseph “came out of the closet” so to speak, he told his brothers, “I am your brother Joseph, that you sold into slavery.” Surely the brothers would have remembered what they did to him; Joseph mentions the selling into slavery to give them the message that “even though you sold me into slavery, we are still brothers.”
This is a more important lesson than you might think. You might assume that if something bad happens to you, if life stays unpleasant you have grounds to bear a grudge, but if life improves and things are going OK you will almost automatically put the bad behind you. But it’s not that simple. I know a number of people who have gone through a bad situation, and things have turned out OK, but they are still stuck in dealing with the aftermath of that bad situation. They can’t leave it behind as Joseph did. They can’t move on.
By telling his brothers what happened was God’s will, Joseph is expressing a sentiment very similar to one that Rabbi Akiva expresses in the Talmud. R. Akiva said “A man should always accustom himself to say ‘‘Kol d’avid rachmanah latav,” ‘Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good.’ R. Akiva was once out on the road and came to town. He looked for a place to stay, but had no luck, everyplace was full. He said ‘Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good’, and he went and spent the night in the open field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp, a weasel came and ate the rooster, a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: ‘Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good’. The same night some bandits came and carried off the inhabitants of the town. He said to them: Didn’t I tell you, ‘Kol d’avid rachmanah latav, Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?’
I was thinking of this particular story on Wednesday. Lauri and the kids and I were in Colorado last week, skiing and visiting relatives. We got up early on Wednesday morning to get in one last day of skiing before heading for home. We were a little slow getting out of the house, we needed to stop for gas, and then, because we were slow getting out, we got stuck in a monumental traffic jam behind an accident on the highway. After sitting stuck for forty minutes, we got off the highway, made a u-turn, and gave up on a last day of skiing. As we turned around I thought of the story of R. Akiva, and told myself, “kol d’avid rachmanah latav,” whatever the All-Merciful does is for the best. Instead of skiing, we got an early start on our drive home. The next day Denver was hit with another blizzard dumping 28 inches of snow on the city – a blizzard we very well might have gotten stuck in if we hadn’t gotten out of town early. Kol d’avid rachmanah latav!
Sometimes even after we can see that things turned out well—like when R. Akiva saw he would have been killed by bandits if his lamp hadn’t been blown out and his animals lost—we still lament over the dead donkey, or the missed day of skiing.
When Joseph tells his brothers “be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you” it is not so much to let his brothers off the hook as it is to allow him and his brothers to get on with their lives.
When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, it wasn’t to let Nixon off the hook – rather it was to let the country get on with its life.
May we learn from Joseph that ability to move on, to not cling to every bad thing that happens to us. May we learn not allow a past wrong to prevent us from fully living in the present. As Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankel wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, ”Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms, the right to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” You can let yourself be mired down in hurt feelings, or you can move on. The choice is yours.