Sunday, December 1, 2013

Taking Hold of Your Story: Parashat Vayigash

      
           How many teenage boys would be willing and able to tend to their mother's bed sores after a long day of school and football?  Not many -- but the day after thanksgiving, I read the most incredible story of a high school football player who does this daily, and lives a deeply inspirational life.  Even though he has yet to read the age of legal maturity, he maintains a 3.5 GPA at his high school, is a star athlete, and cares for his severely disabled mother all by himself.  His life could have been a lost cause, but he has crafted a life of unparalleled beauty and strength.  Any of us who think we cannot handle our many responsibilities should read the story of this incredible young man, Quai Jefferson.  In many ways, his life reminds us of the struggles and triumph of our protagonist in this week's parasha, Joseph.
           Joseph's mother dies while giving birth to his younger brother and while he is still young.  All of his older brothers hate him because his father favors him and he doesn't have the self-awareness to act humbly. Then his brothers throw him into a pit with the initial plan of killing him, only to "take mercy" upon him and sell him to slave traders.  He ends up in a foreign country where people discriminate against him for his national origin. Once he makes it to that country, he ends up in jail for being falsely accused of raping his boss' wife.  If all those things happened to you, what are the chances that you could rise to national prominence and forgive all those who hurt you?  It would be a huge struggle, but Joseph manages to do all of these things over the course of his life.
           I have often wondered why so many chapters of the Bible are dedicated to the Joseph story.  He is not considered one of our patriarchs, and his sons do not play the biggest role in the future of our people. However, the more that I return to his story, the more I realize how important he is as a role model for crafting an impressive life, and a faithful Jewish life in the privileged diaspora.  In this week's Torah portion, we begin with the story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers in Genesis 44 (Rashi's commentary is in the gray, thanks to chabad.org):

3And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence.ג. וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו:
they were startled by his presence: Because of embarrassment. [From Tanchuma Vayigash 5]נבהלו מפניו: מפני הבושה:
4Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Please come closer to me," and they drew closer. And he said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.ד. וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי וַיִּגָּשׁוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה:
Please come closer: He saw them drawing backwards. He said,“Now my brothers are embarrassed” (Tanchuma Vayigash 5). He called them tenderly and pleadingly and showed them that he was circumcised (Gen. Rabbah 93:10).גשו נא אלי: ראה אותם נסוגים לאחוריהם, אמר עכשיו אחי נכלמים, קרא להם בלשון רכה ותחנונים, והראה להם שהוא מהול:
5But 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 אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:
to preserve life: Heb. לְמִחְיָה, to be to you a preserver of life. [From Targum Jonathan]למחיה: להיות לכם למחיה:

It would have been easy for Joseph to give up on life during his two years in prison, but he uses that time to interpret the dreams of his fellow inmates.  It would have been easy for Joseph to lose faith in the God who allowed so many calamities to befall him.  It would have been easy for Joseph to hold onto a smoldering grudge against his brothers who cruelly deceived him and sold him into slavery.  It would have been understandable for him to humiliate them once he rose to a position of great prominence and power. However, Joseph does not do what is understandable or reasonable or expected.
        He does not need a defender to explain his sins in light of his terrible and traumatic childhood.  He rises above, puts his gifts to use for the sake of the public good, and according to the Torah text and Rashi, goes out of his way to reveal the truth of his identity without humiliating them or scaring his brothers.  Joseph maintained his faith in a foreign land, endured great spiritual and physical pain, and yet, crafted a gorgeous life.  He did not spend his time constructing excuses or polishing his tale of woe; he saw the opportunity to serve God and save lives in the deepest, darkest depths.  He used his gifts for the good of an entire empire and to put his broken family back together again.
          Our world needs fewer sad stories and excuses for poor behavior.  We need women and men who take hold of their stories, adapt to their circumstances, overcome them, and work their hardest to share their gifts with a very broken world.  Moses may have delivered the law, but Joseph shows us through example what a life of integrity looks like.  Even when he rises to power and could easily forget his faith and family, he lives to be a man who not only saves Egypt, but also brings honor to the legacies of his parents, Jacob and Rachel. Let us all endeavor to emulate Joseph's example -- letting go of pain and looking for solutions that not only save ourselves, but also heal our world.

Shabbat Shalom