Monday, December 26, 2011

Locating God's Will or a Silver Lining?: Questions from Parashat Vayigash

When tragedy strikes, how do you respond? In that moment of pain do you attribute your suffering to the will of the Divine, to some more ambiguous form of fate, to chance, to others in your life, or to your own sins? For most of us, the answer probably varies depending on the severity of the calamity and how easily we can assign blame to human actions. If someone someone falls victim to a freak accident or becomes ill for an unknown reason, we may be more inclined to invoke God's role. If, however, one is sold into slavery by his brothers (for example), he may be more inclined to blame them for his fate than God.

However, Joseph, whose youth is characterized by vanity and arrogance, develops a more productive, even possibly more mature, outlook in his middle age. When Joseph's brothers approach him initially in Egypt, they have no idea who he is. They cannot recognize the little brother who they so savagely sold into slavery. According to Midrash Rabbah, they did not believe it was him until he showed them that he was circumcised! However, once they did realize that they were pleading before Joseph, they were consumed by busha, shame.

Joseph, who had no obligation to console them, puts them at ease. Instead of licking his wounds or demanding an apology, he responds (Genesis 44:5):

5. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.

ה. וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:

Joseph saw the positive that came from his struggle. He was even thankful that he could aid his brothers as a result of all he endured!

There is danger and beauty in Joseph's approach. The danger is that this approach can prevent us from taking people to account who have wronged us. We can attribute all suffering to God, and as a result, never take necessary steps toward creating necessary change. The beauty in his approach is that it allowed him to move on with his life, find fulfillment, and recommit himself to his family. In my view, whether or not Joseph was empirically right about God's role in his life is irrelevant. Rather, the critical point to draw from this story is that Joseph had constructed a healing narrative instead of a self-destructive one.

David Brooks addressed this point in one of his editorials last month. He wrote a series of articles dedicated identifying effective strategies for crafting happy lives. One of the tips he offered in his November 28th editorial was "beware rumination":

"Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy."

I am not insinuating that believing in God's providence is a form of self-deception. Rather, I am asserting that this belief system often leads us to a better, more productive place. Rumination, "self-awareness", and an obsessive desire to identify the cause of all things are often not good for us. They do not lead to a life of giving, forgiveness, and joy. These behaviors and traits certainly play crucial roles in leading an honest life, but we should be loathe to make them our cornerstones.

Sometimes the "right" is the enemy of the "Good." There are times when we need to strive to be like Joseph, adopting a narrative that heals and builds. This narrative might not resonate with our pain, but maybe that is precisely the reason that we should seek it out and bring it to the forefront of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.