Tranquility of the Soul

Solidarity rally in Brooklyn on December 29. Image courtesy of the Jerusalem Post

These past few weeks, good people everywhere have been horrified by the attacks on Jews that have recently taken place in New Jersey and New York. And those of us carefully following these incidents know that seemingly random acts of anti-Semitic violence have been happening for a while in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn, particularly Crown Heights.

In Parshat Vayigash, we have a model of how Yosef / Joseph deals with people who have destroyed his life— namely, his brothers who discussed killing him and then instead sold him (or some might argue after a close reading of the text, enabled him to be captured) into slavery. Because of them, he endured unimaginable tests and trials, including years in prison, and now, in this parasha, he has absolute power over them.

What would you do if you had absolute power over your nemesis (an ex-spouse, evil neighbor, horrible sibling, traitorous friend, odious anti-Semite?).

Before we see how Yosef/ Joseph responded and what we can learn from him, let’s revisit our contemporary experience.

What provides hope today is the vigorous response by American law enforcement and government officials in investigating and prosecuting the offenders as well as protecting the victims.

What provides less hope today are the parallels we are seeing to the situation Jews have increasingly been experiencing in Europe— namely, feeling unsafe in their communities, telling their children not to leave home wearing identifiably Jewish jewelry or ritual garb (kippot, tzizit out, etc.) and having to transform Jewish institutions into fortresses.

Those of us who do not wear identifiably Jewish clothing, live in non-Orthodox neighborhoods or “look Jewish” should not be sanguine. First, whatever theological disagreements we may have with one another, these are our brothers and sisters being attacked. This is family!

Perhaps they aren’t your “favorite cousins” and perhaps you think they don’t think of themselves as family with you. That doesn’t matter; they are family. The anti-Semites don’t care about (y)our internal issues, so let’s agree those are secondary to our common cause of staying alive and thriving as Jews.

Second, identifiably Orthodox Jews are the canary in the coal mine. They are alerting all the rest of us (and the world) of the dangerous anti-Semitic hatred that is simmering, and sometimes boiling, just under the surface, like a volcano that erupts only so often.

Finally, I believe all minorities need to make common cause with each other in order to give one another strength and make a stronger, larger coalition to protect each other’s’ communities.

Let’s remember the words of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly knew a thing or two about suffering and hatred and whose birthday we will soon be marking:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, 
tied in a single garment of destiny. 
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
—from ‘Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail,’ April 16, 1963

Granted, he is talking about America and all its citizens, whatever the color of their skin; however, “a single garment of destiny” is also a very apt description of the Jewish community wherever we live in the world.

I also love how Rev. King uses the term “a single garment,” which so fittingly brings us back to the Yosef/Joseph story in which garments figure very prominently (note: the coat of many colors Yosef was given, the bloodied coat shown to his father Yaakov/Jacob, the garment torn from him by his master’s wife, the robes he is given to appear before Paro/Pharoah and then serve as his vizier).

Because he resists the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, Tradition calls him Yosef HaTzaddik/The Saintly Yosef. But to my mind, his incredible piety is revealed even more when he confronts his brothers.

Here we see a Yosef that possesses a vantage point and maturity that is so elevated, he's barely living with the rest of us on earth. He says to the men who nearly killed him and ruined his life:

In hindsight, Yosef realized that all of his suffering in life had had a reason, contributing to who he had become and his ultimate purpose in the world. WOW! This reminds me of a quote from an unlikely source:

He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how. 
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

What gave Yosef the “why to live for” that enabled him to endure near murder and betrayal by his siblings? 

I would argue that some of it was his character/ personality, but even more was due to the fact that Yosef possessed emunah or faith in G!D. He believed that throughout his ordeal, somehow, in some way, the Holy One was present in his life. And that belief (or for Yosef, that certainty) was what sustained him.

What he might not have been entirely sure about, given all of the pain he endured, was whether he could trust that G!D’s plan for him was for the good. The notion of bitachon or trust in G!D is a much higher level to attain in one’s spiritual maturation.

While I would venture to say that nearly all Orthodox Jews believe in G!D’s existence, many of its practitioners still struggle with bitachon or trust that G!D’s plan for them is “for the good.” Of course, Tradition tells them (and us) that it is. But believing that can cause much internal struggle if your life has been filled with (or you perceive it to be filled with) great external struggle and pain.

And that’s why bitachon or trust that it is all for the good is often easier seen in hindsight. Only after one looks back and can perceive (hopefully) the positive good(s) that came out of the awful and excruciating bad(s) does one have the vantage to internalize bitachon/ trust.

So what does this teach us as Jews about how to deal with these times?

  • European Jewry is serving as a bellwether for the rest of the Jewish world, just as Yosef served as the bellwether for his family. Their suffering should motivate us to be vigilant and active in demanding equal protection and safety for all of us or their fate will be ours.

  • Yosef was able to survive and even thrive in his distress because he was raised with a strong foundation of belief in G!D and knew that he had a unique destiny and purpose. These are very helpful in difficult times and certainly a plus during the good times too. Jews need to be Jewishly educated by parents, schools, and synagogues to deeply internalize this religious message so they can endure anti-Semitism and have a ‘why to live for’ as Jews.

  • Though Yosef was leading a very different, one might even say, “assimilated” life as a vizier in Paro’s court, when he had the opportunity, he brought his family to safety in Egypt. We must first make sure to physically care for our fellow Jews, and also look after the safety of other minorities.

  • Yosef understood the need for a homeland and the importance of returning to it at some point (even if one does not or cannot live in it). At the close of his life, he made his brothers swear they would take his body/coffin back to the Land of Israel when they returned to live there.

Each of us, if we choose, can learn so much from our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. 

When you look back on your suffering, are you able to find any purpose in it, as Yosef did? Anything that contributes positively to your sense of self now or that you learned that leads you forward? Something that someone else can learn from your pain or might perceive years from now?

Maybe we can't rise to Yosef's level of saintliness, but perhaps in the trying, we can achieve some measure of enlightenment and tranquility of the soul.

Shabbat Shalom

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