Confronting the Past to Shape the Future

Posted on December 23, 2020

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Confrontation is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things that we, as humans, have to do. I, for one, avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps even more challenging than confronting another person is confronting ourselves and our pasts. 

Over the past several weeks Robyn and I have enjoyed watching The Crown on Netflix in the evenings. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating show, loosely based on historical events, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – her personal story, family drama, and national politics. One of the most interesting parts of the show thus far has been learning about Prince Philip. He had such a unique and sad childhood – a mother taken to an asylum, fleeing his home country of Greece, much of his family dying in a plane crash – and until a good number of episodes into this show, one might never know. The creators of the show, however, attempt to show us the human side of this monarchical family. There are flashbacks, moments of pause and reflection. But it isn’t until the Queen brings the Prince’s mother to live in Buckingham Palace during a period of unrest in Greece in the 1960s that Philip is truly forced to confront his past. It is challenging for him, but ultimately very healing. He is able to repair his strained relationship with his mother, finally realizing just who she is. After these events, and after the eventual passing of his mother, we begin to see a change in him. 

This week, in Parashat Vayiggash, we read of a similar confrontation. We have just read about Jacob’s sons descending to Egypt during a very difficult famine in Canaan, seeking food and sustenance. Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal himself, sending them home with supplies and telling them not to return without their youngest brother, Benjamin. They did so, and then as Joseph sent them home, his goblet was placed in Benjamin’s sack so that, when found, Benjamin would stay with him in Egypt. In this week’s episode, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in a rather dramatic scene. Judah makes a plea to Joseph that Benjamin should only return home to their father, after which Joseph cries out to all present (with exception of his brothers) to leave the room, so that he may ultimately tell them who he is. 

Joseph was, by this time, among the highest people in all of Egypt. He could have done anything he wanted at this point. But rather than choose the path of anger and reproach, he chooses the path of direct confrontation and ultimately of peace. He tells his brothers that what they did so many years earlier, selling him into slavery and faking his death to their father, was all part of God’s plan so that he may ultimately save them. In confronting the past directly with those who hurt him, he was able to create a great future for his family. This takes great strength of character, and immense faith in God. 

Each of us has a past. Each of us carries with us uncomfortable moments and experiences. The challenge lies in how we deal with them. Do we simply accept that they are part of our stories and schlep them along with us? Or, do we confront these issues or people directly, hopefully creating deeper connections and freeing ourselves from the bondage of hard feelings and discontentment? I think there is a great lesson to be learned from the Torah. As Jews, we are taught that carrying our past with us is vital. We cannot simply live in the present; we are a people of memory. We should learn from our ancestor Joseph, however, that the key to holding on to our past is having the strength to use those experiences, coupled with deep and abiding faith, to shape a meaningful and bright future.