Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, N.J., discusses Vayeshev.
Longing is a terrible thing, but it can also lead us to a new outlook and to healing.
The antidote to such emptiness isn’t what we think — it is not for us to distract ourselves and ignore what we have lost. If we face the source of our suffering, our dashed expectations and unrealized dreams, however, we can re-examine if they fit the life we are leading now, which is likely far different than the one we were living when we fashioned a plan for our lives today.
Such is the dilemma in which Joseph finds himself in this week’s Torah portion. The arc of his life as recounted in Vayeshev is expansive, but the moments captured remind us, once and again, of the most simple human desire: to be acknowledged for our true selves, especially by those whom we respect and in whom we place a depth of trust such as a parent or an older sibling or a mentor.
Joseph begins as a petulant child, psychologically not really even a young man, and ends the Torah portion as a man who is developmentally on the move. From taunting his more accomplished (and wiser?) brothers to ending up interpreting dreams in prison — a skill that requires both self-awareness and personal insight into the universal truths of the human condition — Joseph’s example teaches us best that, sometimes, to be seen means that we must develop substance.
Joseph begins this Torah portion longing and ends it doing the same. The difference is that he starts with a myopic vision of his life and his world and finishes with an openness to seeing the breadth of life. Joseph may be in prison, but it seems to me that he is now suffering far less than being largely invisible in the life of his family, except for his father (whose respect I am not sure he really had, even though Jacob adored his second-youngest son).
Now, I have a confession to make: This Torah portion is the very first Torah portion on which I composed a sermon, as a Rabbinical student leading services at the now-defunct York House service at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center (PGC) more than 20 years ago. I was petrified, but I was determined to deliver the greatest sermon of my life. I identified with the Joseph we find in this week’s Torah portion: I was the youngest of four sons, late to choose a career though skilled at the jobs I’d chosen (or that had chosen me), and I was always forced to prove myself to family to obtain their approval.
So long ago, what I most desired was a sense I belonged to the life path on which I trod. That peace of mind seemed impossible to acquire because it hinged on my deep desire to show my father — deceased in my childhood — that I had become more than a child; that, instead, I had become a man, self-aware and traveling through life with purpose. This is a longing with which most of us can identify; after all, life is rarely handed to a person without some significant obstacles.
Fantasies and dreams, however, are just that — apparitions that serve a purpose for a time, but cannot provide us a healthy anchor in the real world. Only we can let go of old dreams and dream new ones. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph got his taste of the “real world,” experiencing attempted fratricide, kidnapping, slavery and betrayal — to name a few — while also learning about himself in ways that gave him confidence and clarity. While it is impossible to measure someone’s suffering, I would certainly hope that none of us has had to suffer these horrible ills or ones like them.
Regardless of our misfortunes in life, for some of us in subtle ways and for others in more concrete ones, Joseph’s story in this week’s Torah portion reminds us that while we cannot guarantee outcomes, we can strive to set a steady vision for ourselves in tragedy as well as in happier times.
When considering my own connection to this week’s Torah portion, I believe my father would have been proud with who I was as I delivered that sermon and even more so today. Hearing his voice approving of me would be great, but now, as a father myself, I know his heart.
May you find the same peace today that Joseph found as your new, wonderful dreams come true.
Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, N.J. Rabbi Fox also serves as the president of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors.