Seeing that their father had died, Joseph’s brothers reasoned: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong we did to him?”
. . . But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to harm to me, God designed it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today. So do not fear—I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them, and spoke kindly to their hearts.
(Genesis 50: 15; 20-21)
Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.
When Joseph first encounters his long-estranged brothers in Egypt (unbeknownst to them), he appears to revel in some revenge. Remembering that they had sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver, he deviously sets them up with money, planting, first, silver coins in their provisions and, then, a silver divination cup in Benjamin’s bag—thereby framing them with accusations of theft. Money was the vehicle for his brother’s betrayal; now it is the means for Joseph’s vengeance.
In the end, Joseph overcomes this desire. After Judah heroically offers to sacrifice himself for his younger brother Benjamin, Joseph is moved to reveal himself and, weeping, offers his older brothers full forgiveness. And yet. . . when their father Jacob dies, many years later, the brothers’ fear is rekindled: perhaps Joseph was only pretending to forgive them for their father’s sake, and now that Jacob is dead, he will at last exact his revenge. Thankfully, Joseph alleviates their worries; his forgiveness is complete and unconditional. As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “Joseph may well have harbored fantasies of hurting his brothers and exacting revenge—and here, finally is his chance. But with his father dead and his brothers at his mercy, what does he do? He forgives them. And then, again, the poignant refrain: ‘He comforted them and spoke kindly to their hearts.’”
It is entirely natural to nurture resentment toward those who injure us; in the short run, this may even be a healthy response. But over time, if we want to grow toward joy in our lives, we must learn to let go of our desire for revenge. Alanis Morissette describes the challenging effort to do just that in her song, “This Grudge.” She catalogues the all-too-familiar details of her years of bitterness:
I’ve held this grudge
Four full journals
Thoughts of punishment
So much emotional energy, recalled with such precision!
We get it. We’ve been there. Ms. Morissette astutely recognizes what she has gained through this unrelenting attachment to her anger:
Here I sit
To draw this curtain
How this has entertained
And has served me well
Ever the victim.
There is (self-)righteousness in victimhood.
But the singer knows it does not serve her well, so in the chorus she pivots and asks herself the crucial question:
But who’s it hurting now?
Who’s the one that’s stuck?
. . . Who’s done whining now?
Who’s ready to put down
The load I’ve carried longer
Than I had cared to remember?
Her answer echoes Joseph’s:
I want to be big and let go
Of this grudge that’s grown old
All this time I’ve not known
How to rest this bygone
I want to be soft and resolved
Clean of slate and released
I want to forgive for the both of us
Like Joseph, the mature dreamer, Ms. Morissette comes to see that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but a liberating source of strength. Vengeance shackles us. Forgiveness sets us free: Clean of slate and resolved.