I love to watch football. Even given its violence I enjoy watching any game, especially close contests. Sunday night’s Steelers-Ravens game was thrilling. Monday’s Jets-Patriots was disheartening. I admit as well that although I favor the Jets (and even the Giants) I carry no loyalties. When I was young I cheered for the St. Louis Cardinals who are now the Arizona Cardinals where a cardinal can scarcely be found sitting in a tree (nay, a cactus). Soon after I left my home town St. Louis acquired the Rams who I still remember as coming from Los Angeles but who now have Oakland’s Raiders. So I am left only watching for the love of the game.
A few short weeks ago I found myself cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game Michael Vick ran for two touchdowns and threw for another four. Despite the fact that I don’t believe that history is made on a football field it was still an extraordinary performance, and a worrisome one for the day when I will cheer for the Giants in their upcoming game against Philly. (Let’s hope New York’s defense can match Chicago’s performance.)
Nonetheless the accolades showered on Michael Vick raised for me a question of faith. Can a person change? And can others forgive him for his wrongs? All know that Vick was convicted of running a dog fighting ring for which he served nearly two years in jail. And so I wonder: has Michael Vick fully repented?
It is this very question that occupies the Torah portion Vayigash. The curtain opens on Act III of our Joseph drama with Joseph sitting in a throne-like chair surrounded by servants. His brother Benjamin is bound in chains and held by the Egyptians. Judah draws near (vayigash) Joseph and pleads for his brother Benjamin finally saying, “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief…. Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”
Joseph could no longer control himself and sends his servants out the room. Through his sobbing and tears he says “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?... I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” With that Joseph embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to speak. (Genesis 44:18-45:15)
According to Moses Maimonides the test of true repentance is to be tempted again by the same sin but instead to commit no wrong. A person must stand in the same situation where before he or she sinned but this time behave differently, this time refrain from sinning. This is the only way one can know if a person has changed. Our tradition therefore understands Joseph’s elaborate trap as a test. Joseph frames his brother Benjamin by placing the goblet in his food bag not to be cruel and exact revenge but instead to see whether his brothers are now different men. Will they now abandon the only other son of Jacob and Rachel and leave him imprisoned? Or will they rise up to defend him? Will they turn their backs on a brother or hold him close to their hearts?
This is the test Joseph devises for his brothers. It is of course possible that Joseph was at first motivated by revenge. But when Judah approaches him in the portion’s opening chapter, he becomes overwhelmed by feelings of love and affection for the family from whom he has been separated for so many years. He realizes that his brothers have indeed changed. Joseph must also of course realize that he is a changed man.
And so this is our question for our Shabbat. Do we believe as Judaism does in the ability of people to change? Can we change and find our way out of destructive habits and paths that lead only to self-ruin? Is there room in our hearts to allow ourselves to change? Is there room in our hearts to allow others to change and forgive them their wrongs?
Michael Vick is indeed a great football player. The more important question is: Is he a changed man? While football might make for great entertainment, history is not made by extraordinary passes and dazzling runs. History is made instead by great men and women. And they are, like Joseph and his brothers, changed men and women.