Hero in four faiths saved his people through forgiveness

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 13, 2013

Among the responses to last week’s column on forgiveness, one praised a lifelong hero of mine, and even set the stage for seeing another of my heroes, Time magazine’s runner-up for 2012 Person of the Year, in a new light.

My first hero is Joseph, of biblical fame, about whom Calgary coffee companion Sandy Corenblum wrote:

“I am in constant awe of people who are able to forgive and forget, just as Joseph, my favourite biblical character, was able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery.”

Joseph, dreamer and interpreter of dreams, was the boastful favoured youngest of (then) 11 sons of Jacob and great-grandson of Abraham. His brothers resented him so much that they got rid of him by throwing him into a well and selling him into slavery in Egypt, where he experienced more betrayal and imprisonment.

God, however, had a plan for him, having him at the right place at the right time to interpret a troubled Pharaoh’s dreams, who in turn elevated Joseph to second in command in Egypt at a time of famine. That’s when his brothers came seeking food and were forced to meet Joseph once more, face-to-face. And after testing them, Joseph forgave them (Genesis 37ff).

The story of Joseph is important for all four major religions that trace their roots back to Abraham, not just for my own, Christianity. So, I asked three area experts in the other faiths for their opinions.

Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue, responded:

This story is a prelude to the impending enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. The narrative in contemporary Judaism is not primarily about the concept of forgiveness, which is a theme more of interest to Christians.

For Jews, the story continues the Genesis motif of sibling rivalry with the realization of the horrible consequences when jealousy becomes predominant. The reconciliation of the brothers is the more favourable outcome which we find in the section of Genesis.

However, forgiveness is predicated on whether there has been a change in the heart and behaviour of the brothers against Joseph. The tests that Joseph enacts are meant to determine whether they are sincere in their remorse for what they had done to their brother.

On the other hand, Joseph has also matured in his thinking as he assumes responsibility for his arrogance and demeaning behaviour towards his brothers. For that reason, he does not unleash his power that can exact revenge upon his brothers. Thus forgiveness in Judaism is a reciprocal turning of the heart so that reconciliation can occur.

Cochrane reader Zabi Behin*, of the Baha’i religion, responded:

For me, Joseph has been a symbol of courage and righteousness, a young brilliant character who always remained hopeful as a result of his absolute faith in the powers of his Lord. He rewarded jealousy with forgiveness, oppression with patience, and temptation with uprightness and steadfastness. His galvanizing example had a profound impact on my teenage life.

Muslim author David Liepert had his own take on Joseph/Yousuf (spelled Yusuf in the Qur’an, which declares his to be “the most beautiful of stories”):

I think the aspect of forgiveness that most resonates through the Qur'an's recounting of the events of Yousuf's life relates to why he was so forgiving towards his brothers.

He forgave them because of his faith in God-Most-High, that faith also informing every decision he made. No matter what happened to him, he knew that it was part of a bigger plan that he didn't completely perceive, and that it was all pre-okayed by his God. So he saw his place as one of responding the best he could to his situation at the time, and that other people's roles were simply to act as the agents of God, whether they knew it or not. It meant that he was responsible for his decisions no matter how limited his choices were.

He’s one of my favorite prophets; that's why I named my second son after him!

I’ll close with David’s praise of Time’s runner-up for 2012 Person of the Year, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot and nearly killed by Taliban gunmen because of her stand for women’s rights.

Her family name reflects her Pashtun ethnic heritage, David said. “Yousafzai means ‘Son of Yousuf.’” And like ancient Joseph, “attempts to derail her dream helped that dream come closer to reality! Would Yousuf have saved his brothers from the famine and helped found Israel if he’d never been put in the well?”

. . . and would failure on his part to forgive his brothers have compromised God’s saving plan?

*About ZABI BEHIN, per my column of May 25, 1999:

Our two coffee-table guests this week have become for many of us role models of unassuming humanitarian outreach and positive attitude. Their three children, all graduates of Cochrane High School, have brought honour to our community through outstanding achievement and service to others. Yet this family's gift of goodness comes to us at a cost: systematic religious persecution in their ancestral homeland of Iran.

Zabi and Mahnaz Behin, their daughters Nava and Taban, and son Rayhan, are members of the Baha'i Faith. This world religion is founded on the 19th century teachings of Baha'u'llah, believed by Baha'is to be the latest in a series of prophets that includes Adam, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zarathushtra, Christ and Muhammad. Baha'u'llah called for a new world order based on justice and unity.

Here is Zabi and Mahnaz's story of the journey that, six years ago, brought them to the Big Hill country of Cochrane.

Zabi: "The Baha'is are the largest religious minority in Iran. They are targeted for horrendous persecution because they are branded as heretics. Baha'u'llah himself was imprisoned for many years, and from 1844 to 1875 more than 20,000 Iranian Baha'is lost their lives."

Mahnaz: "My father, who passed away last year, was in prison for two years. He was 72 years old when imprisoned. They confiscated his money, his house, his business. They tortured him, hanged him upside down, then exiled him for five years, during which time he went blind. My brother was in prison, too – for eight years. The officials told him, 'Just say you are not a Baha'i, then we will give you back your house, money and everything else.' But my brother responded, 'How can I say that? I am a Baha'i.'"

Zabi: "This experience of persecution is very precious for Baha'is. Those who suffer don't say much about it. When you render service to God, you don't want to show it off; it is a private thing between yourself and God – private and personal. You accept this suffering for the love of Baha'u'llah."

Mahnaz: "Baha'is are treated as non-persons in Iran. The officials do not recognize Baha'i marriages or register Baha'i births. The first question on application forms is, 'What is your religion?' We Baha'is cannot lie. We tell them, and that's when they get tough. Although I was a teacher, I couldn't get a teaching position. There was so much frustration."

Zabi: "After I received my master's degree in engineering in Sheffield, England, Mahnaz and I were married in Iran in 1975. For Baha'is, the purpose of life is to serve others. Although I had a well-paid job waiting for me in London, we went to Nigeria. But after ten years, Iran refused to renew the passports of Baha'is, to force us to go back to Iran to face persecution. Instead, we went to Newfoundland. We stayed there for four months before moving to Edmonton, where I completed a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Alberta."

Mahnaz: "While in Edmonton, I studied at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to become a chemical technician. Then we went to Fiji, in defiance of Iran. No earthly power can deprive people of serving each other. I took my M.Ed. degree while in Fiji and worked as a high school chemistry and math teacher."

Zabi: "Then in 1993 we moved to Cochrane, for our kids' education. It was close to the University of Calgary. I came here and was climbing Big Hill. I looked into the valley. I was reminded of a place in Fiji where the river bent like the Bow does here, with the trees, bridge, hills – a wonderful setting."

Mahnaz: "I went to the University of Calgary to upgrade my teachers' certification, and went to Mount Royal College for early childhood. After a couple years I set up Kangaroo Child Care in Calgary."

Zabi: "The education of children is of the utmost importance in the Baha'i faith. The root is family. If we cannot help our children stand on their own feet, who else can we help? While in Fiji I saw a parent bird flying with its younger birds--to help them fly. When I saw this, I felt I had the same obligation."

Warren: "Thank you, Zabi and Mahnaz. Do you have a final word for our coffee companions?"

Mahnaz: "Yes. Family is very important. To save our generation, the family has to sacrifice – for the sake of the children."

Zabi: "This is the most important thing for the whole Cochrane community, we think: community support and community belonging--that we see each other as members of one family. It is similar to Christ's second commandment, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' I think we just have to stick with this basic priority."


© 2013 Warren Harbeck

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