Spirituality offers lots of claims, fewer promises, and one guarantee. Whatever one's beliefs (or none at all), spirituality promises seekers a life of enhanced meaning, fueled by values lived in community, in dialogue with ancient tradition stretching forward into the future. The only guarantee is that it won't always be easy.
Just ask Jacob and Joseph of this week's Torah portion.
Vayeishev 5784 (2023)
Note: These words come during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, sparked by a terror attack on Israeli innocents that became the world's most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust. Because current judicial ethics rules ban me from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
I focus instead on some of the emotional and spiritual implications for us and Judaism.
Hang out with me for long enough, and I'm just about sure to mention that I'm a proud alum of Williams College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. (Yeah yeah, U.S. News ranking for the foreverth year in a row.) I mention Williams because it's one of the few U.S. colleges that doesn't seem to have an antisemitism problem on campus.
Why? Maybe an admissions process that seeks well-rounded folks who seek depth and nuance, a socialization process that busts cliques, and a president who teaches Jewish Studies. But I think it's more. Fully 200 years ago, Williams' president, a professor of moral philosophy, told his faculty this:
This week's Torah portion (Vayeishev) begins the Joseph novella – four consecutive parshiyot about a young dreamer Joseph who becomes hated Joseph, enslaved Joseph, imprisoned Joseph and forgotten Joseph until he becomes prime minister Joseph. Like his father before him, Joseph had brother issues: his brothers envied Joseph's special bond with Jacob (Israel), his favored status (colorful coat and all), and especially his dreams. As to one particular dream (Gen. 37:9-11):
וַיַּחֲלֹ֥ם עוֹד֙ חֲל֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וַיְסַפֵּ֥ר אֹת֖וֹ לְאֶחָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֨ה חָלַ֤מְתִּֽי חֲלוֹם֙ ע֔וֹד וְהִנֵּ֧ה הַשֶּׁ֣מֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵ֗חַ וְאַחַ֤ד עָשָׂר֙ כּֽוֹכָבִ֔ים מִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֖ים לִֽי׃ וַיְסַפֵּ֣ר אֶל־אָבִיו֮ וְאֶל־אֶחָיו֒ וַיִּגְעַר־בּ֣וֹ אָבִ֔יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ מָ֛ה הַחֲל֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָלָ֑מְתָּ הֲב֣וֹא נָב֗וֹא אֲנִי֙ וְאִמְּךָ֣ וְאַחֶ֔יךָ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְךָ֖ אָֽרְצָה׃ וַיְקַנְאוּ־ב֖וֹ אֶחָ֑יו וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר׃
[Joseph] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Woah! I had another dream. Wow, the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.” When he told his father and brothers, his father berated him. [Israel] said to him, “What is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” His brothers envied him, and his father kept the matter in mind.
A similar dynamic, albeit more subtle, also can happen with life's more routine inner impulses – the drive to succeed, the embarrassing thing we did, the injustice we experienced. Often these impulses will keep driving thoughts and feelings – sometimes obtrusively, other times just under the surface beyond our awareness but still impactful – until we deal rightly with them.
So Joseph's brothers were jealous – so hotly jealous that they threw Joseph in a pit, sold him off to Ishmaelite traders heading to Egypt, and told their father that wild beasts had killed Joseph. Meanwhile, Israel remembered Joseph's dream, and "kept the matter in mind."
What does that mean?
Israel, when he was Jacob, knew the power of dreams. Jacob's own dream of an angelic ladder, with God above promising that Jacob would never be alone, helped transform his life. Did Jacob, now Israel, remember the power of dreams and believe Joseph's dream to signal that he would be okay – even better than okay?
That's what many of our rabbinic forebears understood. They even went so far as to imagine that Israel, when he actively grieved Joseph in front of the brothers, was merely playing along – because the real joke would be on them.
I imagine something more. Jacob keenly remembered his own missteps, the times he played a part in causing his brother Eisav's injustice, and greatly suffered for it. Now he played active favorites among his children and would suffer for that, too. So would they. So would Joseph. It all would weigh on him, like chickens coming home to roost.
From generation to generation, we inherit and transmit a continuing flow of legacy. Up through the ladder of time, the primordial Adam, the Abraham of ancient ancestry, the Moses figures of our lives, the brave and often unnamed women who taught and guided and stood up – they all course through our veins. The heroic courage, the cowardice, the ordinary, the extraordinary – it all led to us now.
So too for Jacob and his home-roosting chickens. His parents Isaac and Rebecca played a part in Jacob's own brother issues. Isaac's parents Abraham and Sarah favored him over Ishmael, whom they ejected. Abraham and Sarah had both husband-wife and brother-sister issues. From a family systems perspective, the Book of Genesis is a mess, and it all leads to this week's drama between Joseph and his brothers.
Yet it had to happen this way. Had Joseph not been sent to Egypt, the rest of the family couldn't follow in a few weeks to escape famine and have prime minister Joseph save them. There'd be no Israelites in Egypt. A new Pharaoh couldn't arise to enslave them. God couldn't liberate the slaves. Moses couldn't lead them out. They couldn't take with them a diverse assortment of people who together would become a new nation. They couldn't stand at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. There'd be no Torah. There'd be no Israel. There'd be no us.
20/20 hindsight isn't the same thing as ethics. It's well to tell ourselves in hindsight that it's all justified, but as my teachers' teacher famously taught, we don't drive only by looking in the rear-view mirror (where objects may be closer than they appear). We also must look forward, and live as ethically as we can, knowing the legacy that flows through us, intending that the future can redeem today's challenges in ways that we might not dare not hope.
But we must dare. After all, we are to regard the mind ... as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel, to dare, to do, and to suffer." We might well suffer for ancestral traumas, and we can redeem them by transforming them for goodness. We might well be scared and perplexed, and we can redeem fear by daring to do more than we think we can to heal this broken world. It also might mean that we must cause pain to do what is right, and let us never, ever steel ourselves to any of it. Only then might we transform it.
Just ask Jacob and his son Joseph.