The Problem with Moments of Transformation

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog

December 17, 2013

I recently read Nelson Mandela’s 100-day speech in 1994, soon after he was elected South Africa’s president. In it, Mandela spoke about the truth and reconciliation commission, but he also spoke about reconciliation is a larger sense – saying, if we take care of all South Africans, we’ll experience a meaningful and lasting reconciliation. He also said that the work of reconciliation was just beginning. “This [the task of reconciliation and reconstruction, nation- building and development] is South Africa’s challenge today. It will remain our challenge for many years to come.”

It is tempting to look at the struggles that South Africa is currently mired in, and be cynical; to infer that what Mandela and his reconciliation work accomplished was profound in its reach, but fell short. What has it really changed? In fact, it is tempting to look at all deeply transformative moments that way, since the vast majority of these moments seem to fail to get an immediate return on their promise.

We are cynical about the Joseph story, as well, and the great reconciliation that takes place between the brothers and Joseph., when he reveals himself to them, weeping. The brothers are shocked and silent when he says, ‘I am Joseph, your brother. Is my father still well?” Joseph comforts his brothers, not necessarily forgiving them, but clearly offering reconciliation. “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”

 We should not be chastised for being cynical. There are good reasons we might be. We mine the text for signs that the reconciliation is not real: we see that Joseph still calls Jacob, my father, that he gives more gifts to Benjamin, his full brother, than he does to the others, that he seems to want his father to see how great he’s become. And when Jacob dies a little later on, the brothers are even more afraid that Joseph will change his mind and punish them. Mostly, we find it hard to believe that Joseph could really forgive his brothers, after what they did to him. It’s our own resistance to this moment that comes to the fore.

 The reconciliation is real, and the reconciliation is fragile. No doubt there are lingering feelings of recrimination, doubt, and pain that will never go fully away. Transformation takes time and forgiveness is a spectrum, rather than an absolute. The obstacles that follow are not evidence that transformation hasn’t taken place; rather, this is what transformation tends to look like. And with any sea change, it takes years and even generations to heal in an integrative way – whether it is breaking the phenomenon of scarcity that dominates the “first family” in Genesis, or overcoming the legacy of apartheid in South Africa.

 A transformation is not a magic wand. You can’t transform things by fiat. But individuals and communities can make dramatic shifts in intention. Like Joseph does with his brothers. Like Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. Suddenly we can imagine a different resolution to something that previously felt intractable.

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