Joseph and Michael Jackson are examples of forgiveness - opinion

Michael Jackson forgave his father his misdeeds just like Joseph forgave his brothers for what they did to him.

 MICHAEL JACKSON'S father, Joe Jackson. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
MICHAEL JACKSON'S father, Joe Jackson.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

The story of Joseph forgiving his brothers after their attempt at killing him is one of the most moving in the Bible and will be read in the Torah portion this week. There are few historical precedents of a ruler with absolute power forgiving his enemies, let alone those who attempt to murder him.

That they were his brothers matters not a bit. The Torah’s first murder occurs between brothers Cain and Abel and in royal dynasties it was your brothers that you had to worry about the most as they would have unique credibility in challenging your claim to the throne. For hundreds of years in the Ottoman Empire, the first thing that a new sultan would usually do was murder all his brothers so he would have no royal rivals.

Looking back across three millennia at Joseph’s decision and the moving scene described in the Bible when he reveals himself to them, we have to wonder why he forgave them and whether it was wise. Certainly, Machiavelli would not have approved. Nor would the many political philosopher successors who live by the motto “Destroy your enemies utterly.” Kings who forgive attempts at fratricide usually don’t last very long.

In America today, nobody forgives anything. Chris Cuomo was just fired by CNN for trying to help his brother and crossing many lines in doing so. Were he to have begged for forgiveness, his political rivals would have pointed out that in the Trump years he forgave nothing and demanded numerous officials’ resignations.

It seems today that forgiveness is practiced only by the weak. Forgiveness is for the naive. Democrats and Republicans assail each other with a fury that is deeply disturbing just waiting for the other to make a mistake so they can be canceled.

CNN NEWS ANCHOR Chris Cuomo poses as he arrives at a WarnerMedia Upfront event in New York City in May 2019.  (credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)CNN NEWS ANCHOR Chris Cuomo poses as he arrives at a WarnerMedia Upfront event in New York City in May 2019. (credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)

Alec Baldwin may want America to forgive him and the other night, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, he said that he didn’t pull the trigger in the tragic shooting on the set of the Western movie Rust. Of course, his desire for forgiveness would probably be dismissed by the many fans of Donald Trump who remember Baldwin assailing the former president with gusto and with no desire to forgive anything.

It seems that the only people who still believe in forgiveness are those who are in need of it. The rest of us believe in eviscerating each other in this age of anger and hatred.

SO WHY forgive?

This was a central question for Michael Jackson as we discussed his relationship with his father. Between 1999 and 2001 he and I recorded many hours of conversation for publication in a book that was eventually published as The Michael Jackson Tapes. He harbored great pain that he said came at the hands of a neglectful father.

In early 2001 we gave a joint speech at Oxford University where I had served as rabbi for 11 years. I spent weeks writing Michael’s speech based on our shared values. Knowing it would be his most famous speech, I wanted it to be as perfect as possible. 

Forgiveness was a cornerstone of the speech. I told Michael that he had to inspire the hundreds of students in the room to go forward in life without the albatross of bitterness and anger.

The speech expressed it thus: “It all begins with forgiveness because to heal the world, we first have to heal ourselves. And to heal the kids, we first have to heal the child within, each and every one of us. As an adult, and as a parent, I realize that I cannot be a whole human being, nor a parent capable of unconditional love until I put to rest the ghosts of my own childhood.

“And that’s what I’m asking all of us to do tonight. Live up to the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Honor your parents by not judging them. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

“That is why I want to forgive my father and to stop judging him. I want to forgive my father because I want a father, and this is the only one that I’ve got. I want the weight of my past lifted from my shoulders and I want to be free to step into a new relationship with my father, for the rest of my life, unhindered by the goblins of the past.

“In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope. In a world filled with anger, we must still dare to comfort. In a world filled with despair, we must still dare to dream. And in a world filled with distrust, we must still dare to believe.”

I’m guessing these words that Michael would recite with great eloquence at Oxford made a big and lasting impact because I just saw them in Las Vegas at the Michael Jackson One Cirque du Soleil show in giant letters.

At the Oxford speech, he went on. “To all of you tonight who feel let down by your parents, I ask you to let down your disappointment. To all of you tonight who feel cheated by your fathers or mothers, I ask you not to cheat yourself further. And to all of you who wish to push your parents away, I ask you to extend your hand to them instead. I am asking you, I am asking myself, to give our parents the gift of unconditional love, so that they too may learn how to love from us, their children. So that love will finally be restored to a desolate and lonely world.”

FROM HERE he veered to Biblical prophecy. Michael was a religious man and he and I often discussed the Bible together. I tried to capture the spirit of our conversations about Biblical prophecy.

“Shmuley once mentioned to me an ancient Biblical prophecy which says that a new world and a new time would come, when ‘the hearts of the parents would be restored through the hearts of their children.’ My friends, we are that world, we are those children.

“Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.’ Tonight, be strong. Beyond being strong, rise to the greatest challenge of all – to restore that broken covenant. We must all overcome whatever crippling effects our childhoods may have had on our lives and in the words of Jesse Jackson, forgive each other, redeem each other and move on.”

But here is where it got really interesting and unforgettable. On the night of the speech, Michael and I traveled by van to Oxford. There was a lot of traffic and the journey dragged on. I told him, “You’re going to give this speech tonight about forgiveness. It’s going to be groundbreaking. And unless you model it, your words won’t be as effective.”

“What do you mean?” he asked me.

“I mean that unless you can forgive your father, then your words won’t have the impact you desire.”

“What do you suggest?” he asked me.

“That you call your father, right now, from the car.”

And that’s exactly what he did. Michael called his father and reached him in Las Vegas. He told him that he was about to give a speech at Oxford University and planned to speak about him. His father balked, probably expecting Michael’s speech to be derogatory.

“No,” Michael said. “I’m going to say I love you. And I’m calling you to tell you that I love you.”

All of us who were in the van were deeply moved by the exchange between father and son and Michael allowed a journalist friend of ours who was in the car to write about it. 

He delivered the speech that I had written in his own way and his own style. It was quintessential Michael, soft-spoken and heartfelt, and when he got to the part about forgiveness it worked magic. As one student described Michael’s speech about forgiveness, “Michael, you were a thriller.”

And as that wondrous evening came to a close I suddenly remembered, Michael’s middle name, named after his father, was… Joseph. 

The writer, America’s Rabbi, is the author of The Michael Jackson Tapes and The Broken American Male. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.