Friday, November 26, 2021/22 Kislev, 5782
Parashat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4−36:43
The arc of Joseph’s life vacillates greatly throughout this week’s Torah portion. When it begins, Joseph feels secure as Jacob’s favorite and most trusted son. Jacob gifted him an ornamented tunic as a symbol of his admiration. Joseph wears it with pride, enjoying the privilege he experiences within his family and sure of the wonderful future that awaits him.
His life takes a dramatic turn when his jealous brothers decide to retaliate against him. In one of the Torah’s most heartbreaking moments of cruelty, the brothers push him into a pit. As Joseph cries out for help, they ignore him and enjoy a lighthearted hearty meal. Joseph feels betrayed and scared. He does not know what will become of him, but he is certain that nothing will be the same.
When the brothers sell him into slavery, he leaves the only home he has ever known. He doesn’t know whether he will ever see his father or youngest brother again. Instead, he finds himself serving Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Despite the trauma he lives through and the vulnerability of his position, Joseph does something truly outstanding and admirable: he maintains hope for a better future. Even after he lands in prison, Joseph stubbornly believes that this is not the end of his story; it is only the beginning. He interprets the dreams of fellow prisoners, puts his best foot forward in everything that he does, and continues to treat people with respect even when they do not afford him the same. It takes a lot of effort and patience, but as we will learn in next week’s Torah portion, it will all be worth it in the end.
Joseph is human. He makes mistakes, he grows, and he struggles. He also offers us a gift, teaching us about the power of hope. In his book Celebrating Life, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out the difference between optimism and hope. “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better,” he says. “Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”
When tragedy befalls Joseph, he chooses not to focus his energy on his anger towards his brothers or the vulnerability he was experiencing. He also did not depend solely on God to bring him out of his impoverished state. Rather, Joseph demonstrates the power of courageously maintaining a positive attitude and working for a better future.
As we know all too well, life is full of ups and downs. Bad things happen to good people all of the time. As much as we would like to, we can’t change that reality. We can’t undo past mistakes or circumstances. Perhaps, if we like Joseph, hold onto hope, we can create a better tomorrow.
Rabbi Cassi Kail