Toward Shabbat – Vayeshev: Favoritism, Fear, and Destiny

There are three themes that I would like to share with you this Shabbat Vayeshev.
1- Favoritism: The Talmud in Shabbat 10B attributes the initial cause of the animosity between Joseph and his brothers to Jacob. He favored Joseph by giving him the coat of many colors (ktonet pasim). Jacob appointed Joseph to be the leader among the brothers, and therefore felt it necessary to grant him this special garment as a symbol of his leadership. The brothers were jealous of Joseph because of this favoritism. Commonly, when someone has a son in his old age, the older siblings accept their father’s extra show of love to him and do not resent this added affection. In this case, however, there was an unexpected factor that upset the normal dynamics. Joseph would bring evil reports about them to their father. When the brothers observed that he was trying to turn their father against them, their hatred for him was aroused. Once that happened they hated him for the favoritism Jacob had shown him as well. For this reason the Talmud teaches us to avoid showing favoritism to any child (10B). For one never knows what additional factors will come into play. (And it was this gossiping (lashon hara) that brought Joseph down into Egypt which subsequently led to the slavery of the Hebrew people).
2- Fear: Our reading begins with the words, “And Jacob dwelled in the land of the Sojourns of his father.” The Hebrew word for ‘sojourn’ (‘Megure’) can, however, be read from another root to mean ‘fear.’ This leads the Ramban and the Kedushat Levi to understand the verse to say , “And Jacob dwelled in the fears of his father Isaac.” This is a very profound insight. To modern ears it sounds as if it were taken directly from Freud. In large measure we do live ‘in the fears of our parents.’ We take on such apprehensions as the fear of failure and success, the fear of ridicule, the fear of the unknown, and thus the need to control. In a deeper sense, we draw into ourselves the unexpressed fears of our parents, about their parenting, about their experience with their own parents, about the meaning or meaninglessness of their lives, about their insecurities. We as children take these into ourselves by a living osmosis, and we pass on our own fears and anxieties to our children. So, we do, indeed, dwell in the land of the ‘fears’ of our parents!
What was Jacob’s fear? His father Isacc had been bound to the altar and nearly sacrificed to G-d. Isaac had known the truly awesome power of G-d. Even if Isaac had never spoken about it to Jacob, the latter would have known of the total devotion of that moment, of its utter givingness. And so in spite of G-d’s promise of protection, Jacob feared that he would not be able to worship G-d properly,(with the awesome commitment that Isaac manifested) and hence that he would bring disaster upon himself and his family.
The Berdichever teaches that this anxiety, this fear is not bad, nor to be avoided. Fear is a natural part of life that can motivate us to grow. But these anxieties must have a framework, a dimension of transcendent meaning that is gleaned from a communal culture, or personal soul journey. Only when fear is rooted in significance is it worthy of our human energy. Meaning comes from this larger destiny, not from our personal pain.
In our modern world we tend to spend a lot of time searching out our personal fears, those drawn from experience, and those drawn from the experience of our parents insofar as they have been absorbed into one’s own psyche. But what is one to do with these fears? There is no life without fear. Owning the knowledge that our bodies will perish creates unavoidable anxiety. But if we have a religious (transpersonal) context that gives some meaning to our lives, fear can find its place. There is a spiritual (and social) reality which guides anxieties, giving them form beyond the self. There is holiness which gives meaning to a life which is otherwise only personal. One needs meaning, and one also needs the ability to be creative and actualize one’s unique vocation, gifts and destiny. We must always find a larger context if our anxieties are to be attenuated. One of the main problems of our modern age is that many people are unable to find a larger meaningful context that allows us to overcome our anxieties, the main one being the fear of death. Many in the modern world have lost faith in traditional religion, myths and communities. So our challenge is to share the depth and wisdom of our Jewish Tradition and make it engaging, comprehensive, and dynamic for modern people. We must also allow each person in his or her uniqueness to search honestly within and without, and to allow G-d’s grace to enter as a result of our honest efforts. Thus, Hashem can dwell within our fears, and only waits for us to open up to His/her love that is always there.
3- Destiny: This is the main theme woven through the thread of Joseph’s life. His faith and commitment to an inner conviction of his exalted destiny is palpable. It was his guide through every challenging experience that he encountered. Joseph trusted his dreams, he believed in himself, that his destiny was to become a leader. Though he was placed with slaves in prison, he still submitted to G-d’s will with faith. And these series of deprivations led to the necessary strength to become a leader in Egypt; and led him to look back without vengeance toward the hardhearted mistreatment by his brothers. He felt that everything that happened to him was necessary, divinely ordained. This is why he was called Joseph the Righteous One (‘Yosef Hatzadik’). This is what distinguishes the deeply religious person from the cursory religious person; they behave differently under adversity.When their good fortune has turned away from them one can readily determine whether their religion was deeply felt or not; whether s/he retains faith in God’s benevolence under adverse circumstances. We usually associate happiness with something pleasant, never with suffering. Yet religion connects the two because it looks beyond the pains of the moment to the consequences in the future. We may be better off by reason of the afflictions that come upon us if borne in the right spirit.
This was true of Joseph. His misfortunes were also experienced as yet to be revealed blessings. Had his life run smoothly, he would not have achieved as much as he did under the stress of hardship. His early dreams made him aware of his destiny. He felt he was destined by G-d to play a great part in the history of his family occupying an exalted position. Imagine this young, vulnerable man having to become a servant in Potiphar’s home. He was now a slave. One would have imagined that his ambitions would have been completely shattered by his hard fate but he clung to them all the while. He never lost faith in his destiny for this vital reason.
He believed that his life was controlled from on high. If troubles befell him, they were sent by G-d, and must be beneficial and not harmful; all part of the plan. And so it proved in the end. The very misfortunes that appeared so inexplicable were the stepping stones to his ability to save his people. His faith brought the unwavering trust in the purposes of G-d. Thus, he never thought of taking revenge on his brothers for their treatment of him, and felt they were just a segment of the plan that G-d had for him. He waited till they felt penitent for their deeds before revealing himself to them, for he felt that this was necessary for their healing and reconciliation.
Joseph teaches us all to believe in our dreams, to believe in our unique destinies guided by our inner soul intuitions and the outer signs and provisions that life brings to us under the guidance and benevolence of Hashem. But this necessitates our choosing to look inward, to trust our inner voice; and to look outward with faith to discover that our life is actually blessedly before us if we will only take hold of it. Let us increase our faith, the world needs us, needs our unique gifts, and G-d waits for us to take hold of it.
Have a restful Shabbat, meditate, sing and hear the Voice that calls you!
Blessings & Gratitude,
Rabbi Mel