My car is a philosopher; yours is too. I am certain I am not the first person to look into my passenger side-view mirror and ponder the existential meaning of the message inscribed at the bottom of the frame, “Objects in (the) mirror may be closer than they appear.” In this week’s Torah portion, Va-y’chi, Joseph does essentially the same thing. The midrash imagines the moment:
“When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they grew frightened and said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!’ (Gen.50:15). What did they see that made them afraid? As they returned from burying their father, they saw that Joseph had turned off the road and gone to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.” (Tanchuma, Va-y’chi 17; B’reishit Rabbah 100:8)
His brothers thought that Joseph was dwelling on the terrible deed they had done to him years before. But what was Joseph thinking as he peered into that fateful hole? In what way did he remember that bleak moment? The midrash answers:
“Joseph stood up and prayed, ‘Blessed is God who performed a miracle for me in this place!’” (ibid.)
There, gazing into a barren crater, the place he experienced great danger and fear, Joseph sees his life reflected in that pit. We can imagine the hole filled with water to provide an actual reflective surface. Joseph stares into the abyss and sees, indeed, that the harrowing moment is much closer than time and circumstance would suggest. It looms large over everything that has happened in his life, the life of his family, and that of his people. We certainly would excuse him for thinking it cast a dark shadow, but instead, Joseph sees rays of light that herald a new dawn.
In retrospect, he is able to piece together the harrowing events of his life into a story that reveals God’s intent:
“Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people.” (Gen. 50:20).
How many of us have lived through desperate and confusing moments only to look back years or days later and see within them blessing, or the seeds of who we’ve become? The episodes become steps in a journey we could not have predicted.
None of us likes to fall. None of us likes to find ourselves at the bottom of a pit. The Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, wrote:
“The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected. … What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.” (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning [Boston: Beacon Press, 1963], p. 157)
We stand on the cusp of not only a secular new year, but also a new decade. As we look back in the mirror our memories are close and poignant. We greet those that brought obvious blessing with appreciation. But what about those whose lessons are more painful, the blessing — if it is to be found at all — hidden or delayed? We can’t help remembering those too – and we are fools if we force ourselves to forget.
Mark Twain is credited (perhaps erroneously) with the maxim, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Similarly, writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, 1905). Both statements suggest that we would be wise to heed the lessons of history so we won’t repeat the failures of the past.
The objects in our mirror of memory are closest when we allow them to teach us how to see what is right before our eyes or, maybe, looming over the horizon. That is Frankl’s point and Joseph’s great example: Joseph didn’t allow the bleak memories of the past to be destructive or corrosive, but rather he found blessing and insight in them. For Joseph, the past was prologue. He looked into the pit and, remembering his past, he appreciated the present and dreamed of a future.
With the insight of our own history as daughters and sons of Joseph, we have to ask, “What is our meaning in this moment? What are we here to do?” As Mordechai said to Esther as he spurred her to action at the brink of disaster, “Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?” (M’gillat Esther 4:14)
The Jewish people, like all human beings, are products of a collection of experiences, some desired and many foisted upon us. The strength of our people and of all resilient human beings is to look in the rearview mirror and learn from the past, but not be consumed by it. If Joseph’s imaginary car had a bumper sticker, perhaps this phrase would be displayed proudly on its fender, “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why it’s called the present” (based on a cartoon in The Family Circus, 8/31/1994).
In this new secular year — and decade — we can look back with curiosity and the wisdom that comes only from experience. But we can also drive forward with purpose, as Mordechai teaches, “Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?”
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.