It seems so fitting that the week that the great soul Nelson Mandela should die we read the torah portion Vayigash, the penultimate torah portion in Breisheet (Genesis). As we mourn the passing of one of the greatest people of our time, who brought the idea of truth and reconciliation and forgiveness to bear in healing the wounds of apartheid South Africa, we read the story of what may be the first example of forgiveness in written history. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes American Classics professor David Konstan who illustrates the Greek model of appeasement of anger or exculpation, neither of which is true forgiveness.
When Joseph forgives his brothers for their crimes against him, he puts them through a ritual that assures that they have earned it—an exercise in teshuvah or turning or repentance. While he has understood for a long time that their heinous behavior toward him was part of a divine plan to put him in a position to save many lives, they still carry some guilt for selling him into slavery and lying to their father. In last week’s parasha, they noted:
They said to one another, “Surely we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. (Gen. 42:21-23)
They knew that what they did was not okay. Maimonides would call this the first stage of teshuvah—acknowledging that you have done wrong. Next Maimonides would tell us that we must confess our wrong, as the brothers do later on,
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves-we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” (Gen. 44:16)
They accept collective responsibility for their actions. And then finally, when Judah asks to take Benjamin’s place as the slave/captive (Gen. 42:33), he completes the cycle, by experiencing an opportunity to commit wrong again and choosing a different, a right path.
And we can see this in the model of Nelson Mandela’s life. Like Joseph, he knew to let go: after 27 years in prison, he spoke these courageous words: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Later, he noted that “[r]esentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
He recognized that the only way for South Africa to move forward after its dark dark history was through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up so that people could learn the full truth of what had happened under apartheid, so that acknowledgement and confession could be achieved. While amnesty was used as a tool of reaching for the truth, and so perpetrators of violence were not punished, Mandela persuaded most South Africans to practice open-heartedness and mercy (rachmanus), rather than seek revenge. It was truly about loving your neighbor as yourself.
As we ease into shabbos, I pray that we can hold the idea of forgiveness and letting go of resentments, while on the other hand, when we have done wrong, let us own up, confess and take responsibility for our actions. And we pray for Mandela, and find blessing in his memory. Zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing—how can it not?).
 From his book, Before Forgiveness: The Origins Of A Moral Idea (2010).