Can You Find the Good in a Catastrophe?

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Dan Moskovitz

a distraught man looks at his house that was destroyed in a hurricane

As we begin Parashat Vayigash, Joseph is seated as second in line to the pharaoh in Egypt. His brothers had come down to Egypt seeking food as there was a famine in the land of Canaan. Joseph concealed his identity from his brothers, and in last week’s portion, Mikeitz, he framed them for stealing and held his brother Simeon for ransom until they return with Benjamin.

Vayigash presents the third act in Joseph’s unfolding tale. His brothers return to Egypt, Benjamin in tow, and seek Joseph’s forgiveness for an offense they didn’t know they committed. Joseph now holds Benjamin, his youngest brother, hostage. Judah pleads with Joseph to release Benjamin lest their father Jacob die from the shock of losing yet another son (in addition to Joseph), as Benjamin is “a young boy of his old age” (Gen. 44:20). 

Seeing his brother’s love for Benjamin and their father, Joseph is deeply moved. He reveals himself to his brothers and bestows all manner of favors upon his family. Jacob travels down to Egypt to see his long-lost son. Pharaoh, out of respect for Joseph, greets the family with open arms and open store houses of goods and land.

There are many important moments in the series of events that unfold in this story, but perhaps the most poignant is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and says to them:

“I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt; and now, don’t be troubled, don’t be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen. 45: 4-5)

This is a Jewish response to suffering. It’s the biblical version of “everything happens for a reason.” But it is more complex than that. The Jewish response is that something good can come from, or be made from, every challenge or disappointment or heartache life throws at us. It’s making lemonade out of lemons.

The Joseph his brothers encounter in this dramatic moment is not the young sibling who foolishly taunts his brothers with his egocentric dreams. This Joseph is wise and experienced; he has learned from life and takes the long view of things. Experience is his guide and faith his support in moments of despair.

Retrospectively, cataclysms can be seen as fortunate; the gains outweigh the losses. Hanukkah yields the rededication of the sanctuary and the Jewish people. The sin of the apple in the Garden of Eden brings about knowledge of the human condition.  The flood in Noah’s day serves as a reset for humanity and a reset for God’s relationship with us: we are told that never again will God bring a flood. Even the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the first set of Ten Commandments tablets is met, according to legend, with God essentially saying to Moses, “Yashar koach! [Congratulations!] You broke them” (see Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot). In the long view, the second set of tablets and the dynamic in which they are created is more useful and meaningful to the Jewish people, psychologically and spiritually, than the first set.

These examples reveal more than just making do with unfortunate circumstances. They each show a recasting of the situation to find a greater meaning and message. Joseph speaks to his brothers with wisdom and comfort.  He tells them that the past is the past, beyond their control, but that they can endeavor to shape the future. He finds meaning in the trauma that changed the arc and trajectory of his life.

This was the great insight and contribution of Viktor E. Frankl (1905–1997) a Jewish psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. With this experience, Frankl wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, Man’s Search for Meaning. The book is more than a description of the horrors of life in the concentration camp; it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a meditation on the nature of human beings, and our eternal search for meaning.

Frankl states that most people in the concentration camp believed that the real opportunities in life had passed, even though they in fact had been offered a new opportunity — and a challenge:

“One could make a victory of these experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning [Boston: Beacon Press, 1963], p. 71)

German philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) framed it this way: One must transform every “it was” into an “I willed it thus!,” that is, to take hold of the situation, accept one’s fate, and strive toward a goal worth pursuing. This is not “everything happens for a reason,” but “there can be meaning in everything that happens.”

Frankl believed Nietzsche’s dictum that “he who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any how” (quoted in Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 71). Frankl writes that this could have been the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic efforts concerning the prisoners in Auschwitz. But its value transcends that horrific extreme example of the Shoah.

Joseph sees in his brothers’ treachery the origin of things that place him in the improbable but essential position to save his family and his people during a time of extreme famine. He finds meaning in his suffering.

As we prepare to enter the year 2020 with all of its symbolism of clarity of vision, we would be forgiven for looking back on the first two decades of the 21st century and focusing only on the great suffering, destruction, and discord human beings have waged against each other and our planet. Upon reflection, even our attempts to make lemonade of it all may appear to leave the glass half empty. And yet, the Jewish view is to say, “What can we learn from this?” The experiences of our past can shape and inform our future if we find meaning in them. That is the eternal challenge and also the opportunity presented to us in how to see the life of Joseph. Perhaps his brothers meant what they did for bad, but Joseph, through his faith in God, found meaning in all that had befallen him — and he found the good.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC, and author of “The Men’s Seder” (MRJ Publishing). Rabbi Moskovitz is also chair of the Reform Rabbis of Canada. His writings and perspectives on Judaism appear in major print and digital media internationally. 

How Many and Difficult Are the Years of Your Life?

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Elana Nemitoff-Bresler, MAJE

an hourglass and a calendarIn his commentary on Vayigash, Rabbi Moskovitz writes of Joseph and his brothers reconnecting. I’d like to discuss some other connections that take place in this parashah: the reunion of Joseph and his father Jacob, and Jacob’s introduction to Pharaoh, which reveals Jacob’s suffering. When Joseph brings his father to meet Pharaoh, his boss and CEO, Pharaoh asks Jacob a simple question, “How many years have you lived?” (Gen. 47:8). Jacob answers the question with an elaborate spin: he responds:

“The span of the years of my lifetime has been 130; few and miserable have been the days of the years of my life. They have not attained to the length of the days of the years of my fathers when they were alive.” (Gen. 47:9)

Rather than a simple response, Jacob offers Pharaoh an enigmatic reply. First, Jacob feels that his 130 years are a short blip on the radar screen of biblical life. More important, Jacob shares that he is dissatisfied with the events of his life. He seems to ask, what is the meaning of all the difficulty that has plagued me? And how likely am I to live much longer? Jacob expresses that since he’s witnessed extensive evil and lived for a shorter time than his ancestors, his life means next to nothing.

Considering Jacob’s age we may ask, what is the average biblical lifespan? Why does Jacob feel such angst at living 130 years? According to Ramban, the normal life span for biblical characters is 70-80 years, but a righteous person will live longer (Ramban on Gen. 5:4). Modern statistics put the average lifespan in the United States at 76 years for a man and 80 years for a woman — similar to Ramban’s assessment of the normal life span for characters in Torah. Therefore, Jacob’s 130 years demonstrate that his righteousness outweighed any past faults. This means Jacob himself was favored by God — and did live a relatively long life, just not in comparison to others in Genesis.

Jacob feels that his life has been difficult. In answering Pharaoh’s question, Jacob cannot say that he lived 130 years, but rather that he has struggled  through his life The length of Jacob’s life is directly related to how he experiences his stay on earth. Rashi says Jacob describes himself as a stranger  with a difficult life: he has struggled as a foreigner in strange lands and hasn’t found inner peace (Rashi on Gen. 47:9).  Were Jacob to have led a less demanding life, his life span might have increased significantly (Radak on Gen 47:8-9).

What exactly are these struggles by which Jacob is plagued? Jacob laments that his life has been filled with ra-im, literally “evil,” although in reading about his life one sees both trials and triumphs. He had four wives, fathered 13 children, and had numerous descendants. When he left his father-in-law, he was a rich man with abundant cattle and sheep. Yet he also experienced the death of his beloved wife Rachel and the (temporary) loss of Joseph. After deceiving his brother Esau, a fearful Jacob had to flee for his life. While Jacob reconciled with Esau after a 20-year estrangement, he faced persistent misery, blinded by pessimism and ambition to attain the right of the firstborn. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Jacob cannot recall the positive elements of his long and fruitful life.

Today, we know that pessimism can affect the quality and length of life. A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University shows a correlation between attitude and overall health: a positive attitude results in better health overall and fewer symptoms from illnesses. And a Yale University study found that elderly people who have a positive attitude about aging tend to live 7.5 years longer than those who don’t (David R. Hamilton, “Do Positive People Live Longer?”).

From these studies, we might extrapolate that the more negatively Jacob saw himself, the more looming his death actually seemed. Therefore, I can only think how lucky we are when people around us ask: “How many are the days of your life?” How grateful we should be when people remind us to determine the meaning and purpose in our lives. We can answer, as Jacob does, that our experiencing evil and distress means that death is imminent. Or we can learn from Jacob by rewriting his story through our actions and thoughts. We can answer that we are determined to get through our difficulties, we are stronger than the challenges we face, and we will persevere through perspective framing!

So, the next time we think life is difficult, let us consider our patriarch Jacob and how positive thinking could have changed his mind-set. As we experience pain and suffering let us not become forever mired in it. Which attitude will you choose? Will you see your life as short and difficult, or good and long?

Rabbi Elana Nemitoff-Bresler, MAJE is rabbi educator at Temple Israel in Westport, CT.

Reference Materials

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 259–280

Haftarah, Ezekiel 37:15–28

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 357−358; Revised Edition, pp. 302−303


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