Sunday, December 7, 2014

Growth by Fire (Portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes, we are like lodgepole pines.

During most of that tree’s life, their cones are tightly sealed with layers of resin and woody tissue.  They do not open unless they are exposed to very high temperatures of the sort that only forest fires provide.  In other words, lodgepole pines only spawn new growth in the heat of crisis conditions.

Sometimes we, too, require adversity to grow.  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 empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings.  He flaunts his status as favorite over his brothers, recounting his dreams of personal glory in a manner that can only serve to inflame their jealousy.  As a result, they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then lie to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph 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 helped Joseph 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 the heat of crisis, new seeds of hope and possibility can germinate.  Or, as the psalmist puts it, in beautifully poetic imagery: “The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.”

For a great song on the subject, give a listen to Joe Henry’s Sparrow, which opens with the line: It wasn’t peace I wanted/So it wasn’t peace I found. . . 

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