Sunday, December 17, 2017

Giving Up Hope for a Better Past (Portion Vayigash)

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.  (Genesis 45)

In this week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph—now second only to Pharaoh in Egypt—reveals himself to his brothers—and excuses them for their mistreatment of him many years earlier.

What moves Joseph to forgive his older brothers?  Many of our commentators suggest that his generosity is a response to their teshuvah, to the fact that they have matured and changed for the better, as exemplified by the eloquent apology offered by Judah, who is prepared to sacrifice himself for the family.

Yet, as Rabbi Yael Shy notes, nowhere does Joseph express this view that his forgiveness is a result of his brothers’ changed behavior.  He is, by contrast, quite clear in noting that he does not forget the wrong done to him, declaring, “You intended evil against me, but God designed it for good.”  Instead, Joseph forgives because he understands that this is the only way to free himself of the resentment and bitterness that would only hollow out his own life.  To quote Lily Tomlin, Joseph seems to understand that “forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”

Giving up all hope for a better past.  

This can be excruciatingly difficult.  As Rabbi Shy tells the story: “Thinking that I needed to keep the pain in order to keep the truth alive has been the mistake I've made over and over again, blocking my way to forgiveness. Each time someone has really hurt me, and I have considered forgiving them, a voice seems to scream at me from within: They aren't sorry! They are living their lives, as happy as can be, while you suffer! If you forgive, you erase what happened! Nobody will affirm how much pain you are in!  But the validation I seek most likely won't come from the people who hurt me (and if it does, that usually doesn't feel like enough). It must come from myself. And in the meantime, the pain and the burden of holding onto my anger are damaging me - not those who hurt me. As the saying goes, holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

The only way to achieve freedom, to grow and blossom into our own lives, is to extricate ourselves from the sort of victimhood that inevitably flows from grudge-bearing.  This week, consider:  Where in your heart are you still nursing resentment against those who hurt you?  How can you liberate yourself from that resentment?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lighting the Dark (portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes hope emerges in unexpected times and places, if we remain open to the possibility of light emerging out of darkness.

Our Torah portion for this week, Vayeshev is filled with loss and despair.  Jacob mourns bitterly for his beloved son Joseph, whom he believes is dead.  Meanwhile, Joseph (who has, in fact, been sold into slavery by his brothers) is carried into exile in Egypt, where he will languish for many years in Pharaoh’s prison.  As the portion ends, despite Joseph’s gift for dreaming and dream interpretation, he is essentially forgotten.  In the darkest depths of the dungeon, all hope seems lost.

It is no coincidence that we often read this parashah around the beginning of Chanukah (this year, the Festival of Lights begins on Saturday night).  Chanukah arrives at the darkest season of the year, at the new moon closest to the winter solstice.  The situation of the Maccabees, pitted against the mighty Assyrian empire, also seems hopeless.   Like Joseph, they face a dark night of the soul.  The old, familiar, comfortable paths are all closed off to them.  They face overwhelming odds, with little sustenance and profoundly limited options.

And yet Joseph ultimately rises and the Maccabees prevail.  Each of these incredible underdogs defies the probabilities—and each begins by nurturing a tiny spark of light.  Joseph always holds the memory of his youthful dreams, and the possibility that they might yet come true.  The Maccabees muster the faith and courage to kindle light.  In both cases, there are no guarantees that the flames of hope will flourish.  But Joseph and the Maccabees share the wisdom that in dark times, we must ignite our own little lights and hope that others—including God—will sustain them.  We must take the first steps to banish darkness, and believe that when we do, our efforts will spread and inspire others to help illuminate the world.

The poet Rumi wrote:

Night comes so people can sleep like fish
in black water.  Then day.

Some people pick up their tools.
Others become the making itself.

In this season, let our lives be the lights the reawaken hope and compassion.