One of the questions you might have found yourself asking is where to store the things that you wish never happened? The more Torah you learn, the more of an idealistic you become. You don’t live up to your ideals with absolute integrity, and neither does anyone else who populate your memory bank. You may even feel like you are stuck in the “before” pose that you see in makeovers. You were pretty satisfied until you saw the “after”.
How do you stay an idealist without falling into the trap of being bitter and cynical?
If anything, Yosef had no illusions about flawlessness. Where did he store the memory of pleading for his life, and having his pleas fall on deaf ears? Why didn’t he drown in the bottomless pit of bitterness or cynicism? What was his trick?
One insight that the Torah gives us is through its recording the names of his children. Their names tell you that he didn’t try to erase his experiences. He chose to deal with them instead. He named the first one Menasheh, which means that “Hashem has caused me to forget all my hardship and my father’s entire house”. His second son was Ephraim, meaning, “Hashem has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering”. Would you ever give a child a name that reflects your longing to forget the things that you wish didn’t happen? Wouldn’t his name just perpetuate the very memories that you wish to erase? Would you choose to recall the fact that you never chose to live in the land that has replaced your birthplace every time you called your son?
Yosef chose to find meaning in where he was once was and where it took him. His children’s names were an appropriate place to begin. In Tehillm, children are compared to arrows in the hand of a strong man; he draws them close as stretches his bow, and then lets them go. Children are closer to us than anyone except a parent can know; they start out as part of your body, and morph into themselves. Your goal is to aim and then let them fly free. Menasheh’s name tells you about Yosef. He is willing to forget the struggles and to move on. Ephraim’s name tells you that he ultimately found his actualization by doing just that.
Yosef was sold as a slave at the age of seventeen. He lived to be 110. He could have spent 93 years embittered and disillusioned. He made another choice. Instead, he chose to find G-d’s wisdom in every situation he experienced and in every step that he walked. He didn’t whitewash anything. He also didn’t choose to see only chaos. Instead, he chose to walk the same path that his father, Yaakov had walked. What was Yaakov’s path?
Listen to what Yaakov said, when he spoke about himself.
It is unusual to find the Avos speaking about themselves at all. You can learn more about them from what they said to others, or what they did. Yaakov told Yosef that he would give him the city of Shechem as a special gift. He said, “I have given you Shechem, one portion more than your brothers; I took it from the hand of the Emorite with my sword and with my bow”. On a simple level, this verse is very difficult to understand. Wasn’t the city of Shechem conquered by Shimon and Levi, not Yaakov? Didn’t Yaakov disapprove of their radical move? The Targum explains. Before I tell you what he says, I want to tell you why it is relevant. Targum is the ancient and authoritative Aramaic translation of Torah by Onkelus the convert (c.90). What makes this translation unique is that although it is an interpretive translation, it has the approbation of his great teachers, the famous Tanaaim Rabi Eliezer and Rabi Yehoshua. This means that the scholars of the Mishneh saw this translation as an accurate one, and for that reason it appears in almost every addition of Chumash. Targum translates “my sword and my bow” as “my prayer and my beseeching” Maharal explains this translation as meaning that the prayer of the righteous is like a sword because it pierces through every possible barrier. It is like a bow, because the force with which you draw the bow close to you will determine arrows speed and power and far it will fly. Everything depends on how much strength you use when drawing the bow. In prayer, this means the strength of your devotion. It was Yaakov’s prayer that made the conquest of Shechem a reality even though it was actually done by Shimon and Levi. Had it not been for his prayer, they would have failed, and the surrounding nations would have taken up arms to do battle against Yaakov and his family. What does this have to do with Yosef?
It has everything to do with him.
He understood that the only factor that really counts is G-d’s will. He was sold into Egypt because that’s where Hashem wanted him to be, to face life, and to be challenged. He was fruitful there in every sense of the word. To him, that’s all that mattered. The only life he tried to judge and interpret was his own.
You may be thinking that this is just marvelous if you happen to be Yosef. Not so simple if you happen to be you. Wrong again.
Yaakov’s death isn’t’ directly recorded in the Torah (even though his burial is written about in great detail). The sages say that the reason is that “Yaakov our father didn’t die” they obviously don’t me that literally. What they are getting across is that he is alive in every Jew. Each one of us has the capacity to “forget” the struggle and focus on where it can bring you.
Last night I saw a documentary filmed by “Project Witness”, in which the lives of people who chose to save lives during the holocaust (and interviews with those who they saved) were presented. What each of them shared was willingness to deal with impossible situations with faith and dedication, instead of the insanity and despair that would have been an easier choice. They were so focused! So real! So much of Yaakov is still alive.
Have great week!