Sunday, December 11, 2011

Becoming Mensches (portion Va-yeshev)

Sometimes it takes adversity to spur growth. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our forefather Joseph. As a youth, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s favor, sartorial splendor in his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation. Yet young Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns as a result of his one nearly fatal flaw of narcissism. At seventeen, Joseph lacks the slightest hint of empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings. He flaunts his status as favorite over his brothers, recounting to them his dreams of personal glory that can only serve to inflame their jealousy. As a result, those same brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then tell their father that he is dead.

Things go from bad to worse. After he resists the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph winds up in prison, where he languishes, lost and forgotten. The youth who seemed destined for greatness has hit rock bottom. But it is in precisely this place of darkness and despair that Joseph becomes worthy of his birthright and his visions of leadership. When he encounters two fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s former baker and cupbearer, Joseph notices that they are distraught before either one utters a word. With great compassion, he asks them: “Why do you appear downcast today?” The vicissitudes of life have enabled Joseph to mature from a profoundly gifted but rather callous lad into a genuine mentsch.

So, too, in our own lives. While we certainly do not seek out struggle, suffering, and loss, these things inevitably find us. Our challenge is to transform our difficult times and events into pathways of growth and compassion. Out of our darkest experiences, previously hidden strengths can emerge—if we nurture them and move forward with hope and faith. Or, as the psalmist puts it, in beautifully poetic imagery: “The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.”

This week, consider: how can you grow through adversity?

No comments: