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Genesis 45 - Richard Burn

Families, tensions & reconciliations.

Shabbat shalom and, although we’re almost one week into it already, a happy new year to you all.

As with any New Year, everyone hopes for the best and looks forward to what the New Year will bring. Many of us will have made New Year resolutions, some of which will be kept and some of which won’t. Over the recent break, many of us will have spent extended times with our family, both immediate and wider. Sometimes this can lead to periods of tension….

One’s family is at the end of the day what matters most in life – well, it does to Gill and me at least. So after reading today’s Torah portion, perhaps we ought not to be too surprised that Joseph eventually effects a reconciliation with his brothers albeit after some shenanigans on his part by previously framing Benjamin for a “crime” he didn’t commit. Despite his position as Pharaoh’s right hand man and presumably wanting for nothing, Joseph is at the end of the day able to forgive his brothers for their previous act of betrayal and bring the whole family together once more.

In my own family, my late mother and her elder sister barely spoke for over 25 years as a result of a petty family squabble following the death of an elderly aunt. There was no ‘bad blood’ between them as such, they just cut themselves off from each other. In the end I decided that I would invite my aunt to my mum’s 80th birthday celebrations back in 2008. I also invited my aunt’s only son – my cousin David – as he was the only other family member I had on my mother’s side of the family. When it came to the lunch we’d organised, my mum got along like a house on fire with her sister, despite their previous reluctance to get on with each other. For the last few years of their lives, although I wouldn’t call them ‘close’, my mother and sister met a couple of times and chatted frequently on the phone, something which brought that side of the family together again, and as a result I am now in regular contact with my cousin and his family.

So, going back to today’s portion and beyond, we see Joseph and his brothers reconciled and Joseph being reunited with his family. I suppose the cynics amongst us might say that at this point Joseph really had no reason not to forgive his brothers for what they’d done all those years before – after all, if they hadn’t done what they did, Joseph wouldn’t have ended up all these years later in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right hand man with all the perks and benefits that brought. It’s true of course that Joseph had spent several years in slavery as well as in prison so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he exacted some initial revenge and tested his brothers to see to what extent, if at all, they’d changed and become better people. I wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t changed. Would Joseph not have revealed himself to them and therefore just left them to their own devices? We’ll never know.

One thing we can be sure of is that Joseph himself had undergone something of a personality change. As a youth, he’d told tales on his brothers and wallowed in his father’s favouritism of him; he’d arrogantly told his brothers about his dreams, in which you’ll recall all of them bow down to him. Perhaps it’s not surprising that his brothers disliked him enough to sell him into slavery! But Joseph mellowed over the years, he became a responsible adult and a family man himself and so this enabled him to forgive his brothers and bring about a reconciliation with them.

Forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t always so easy however. Over recent years, and especially over the last year or so, we’ve had to endure the threat as well as the reality of terrorism. It’s exactly 2 years ago today since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and a little over a year ago since the nightclub atrocities there; in July we witnessed the attack in Nice and, within the last few weeks, the copycat attack in Berlin, all of which have indiscriminately targeted innocent civilians, whether young or old and irrespective of race or religious belief. What kind of human being perpetrates such heinous acts? I for one just cannot get my head around the mentality of these cowardly monsters, or those responsible for the deaths of innocent children caught up in the recent Syrian conflict. And I cannot begin to forgive them for their actions. Does that make me a bad person – and a bad Jew? Should I forgive all those who do such dreadful evil? Actually, I don’t think so. I certainly can’t forgive the Nazi’s for the slaughter of millions of Jews nor can I bring myself to forgive those who maimed and slaughtered innocent men, women and children in Darfur and other regions of Africa over recent years. Sadly, the list goes on.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. We must hope that the recent ceasefire in Syria will hold and that relations between Russia and Turkey, two countries effectively on opposite sides of the divide over the conflict in Syria but who nevertheless brought about the ceasefire, will remain as stable as possible so that a long-term peace can be brought to that troubled region, which has seen such dreadful suffering and hardship over the course of many years.

75 years after Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and brought America into WWII, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to Pearl Harbour together with President Obama. Mr Abe said he was making the visit as the representative of the Japanese people in order to commemorate the victims of the attack. He went on to say, “We must not repeat the horror of war ever again. Together with President Obama, I would like to express to the world this pledge for the future and the value of reconciliation”. The visit follows President Obama’s historic trip earlier in 2016 to Hiroshima, where at least 90,000 people, nearly all of them civilians, died after the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the city in August 1945 and so hastened the end of the Second World War. The Japanese PM didn’t go so far as to apologise for the attack on Pearl Harbour but, like Obama at Hiroshima, paid his respects to the victims and encouraged historical reflection on what had taken place.

Like many of you, I grew up at the time of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland and can all too easily recall the bombings – such as those in Guildford – perpetrated on the UK mainland by the IRA. At the time, it sometimes seemed as though the shootings and the bombings would go on forever. Eventually, huge efforts were made on both sides to end the conflict to bring about a lasting peace which is by and large holding to this day.

Try as I might, I can’t see the leaders of ISIS, or whatever it transmogrifies into, commemorating the victims of 9/11 or subsequent terror attacks. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up hope or stop trying. It’s a massively tall order, and something that could take a generation or more to resolve, but the civilized world needs to do all it can to bring an end to these terrorist attacks not just on a one by one basis relying on intelligence, but as part of a long term military and/or diplomatic strategy.

We must also pray that the long-running conflict between Israel and those determined to see its demise can reach a permanent solution.

So as we begin the New Year, 2017, let us each resolve to avoid conflict wherever possible and to do whatever we can to bring about reconciliation, whether it be at a family or a wider level. These are resolutions we simply have to stick to for the greater good.

Richard Burn

7.1.17

Thu, 21 November 2019 23 Cheshvan 5780