From hardship to holiness


This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the epic story of Joseph, the longest story in the Torah comprising 14 chapters and four parashot.

At the start, we see Joseph at the age of 17, in opposition to his brothers. He is Jacob’s favored son among the 12 sons. He alone receives that “amazing Technicolor dream coat” — and what began as a symbol of his father’s love becomes a wedge between Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph’s two dreams, which he boastfully shares with his brothers, foretell his destiny — his father and brothers bowing down before him. Though Joseph will be transformed on his life journey, at this time he is self-absorbed and arrogant. It is no wonder that his brothers hate him and conspire to do harm.

The actions of Joseph’s brothers are always shocking. How can they plan to kill him, strip him of his clothing, throw him into a pit (while they eat a meal nearby), sell him off to Ishmaelite traders and then tell their father that he has been killed by a beast? Their behavior is beyond appalling. In the end, Joseph is a victim of his father’s favoritism, his brother’s jealousy and his own narcissism.

As we follow Joseph’s journey, we can sense God’s guiding hand in keeping him alive, bringing him to Egypt and blessing him in his work as a servant for Potiphar. With more lessons to learn and a greater destiny to fulfill, Joseph is once again betrayed and ends up in another kind of pit, as Potiphar’s wife accuses him of sexual misconduct, which causes Joseph to be thrown in jail.

Joseph’s character as a leader and as a man of God with a spiritual mission is forged slowly over time. His trials strengthen him and help him to see beyond himself. Spoiler alert: Joseph’s faith in God along with his divine gift of dream interpretation eventually leads him to the pinnacle of power in Egypt. He becomes a compassionate man, saving Egypt and assuring his reunited family’s survival.

How do we balance our dreams with grounding and empathy?

There is a chasidic story that teaches that a person should have two slips of paper which he carries with him at all times. In one pocket is the message, “For me the world was created.” In the other pocket is the message, “I am but dust.”

When we get too caught up in our dreams, we need to reach into the pocket of dust. When we forget the dream, we reach into the pocket of world. And sometimes we can keep both hands in our pockets touching both truths.

Questions for Discussion

1. We know that many parents in American society are overindulgent when it comes to their children. What are ways in which parents can help their children develop a sense of empathy and a giving heart?

2. How can we best give guidance and direction to teens at a time in their life when they are, by nature of their brain chemistry, self-centered and less willing to take advice?

3. Many of us have experienced the kind of deep-seated conflicts that can tear apart a family over time. Is there anything you can do in your own circle of family and friends to facilitate healing and connection?

Cantor Allen Leider is the director of lifelong learning at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

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