Seeing the Forest Through the Trees
By Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
It depends how you look at it. Some of us see the problem; others of us see the solution. Some people look at life and see only the facts. Others are able to look at life and see the meaning. Some of us will read this week’s Torah portion as the story of Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. Others of us will read the narrative in Parashat Va-y’hi as the story of their lives.
The most dramatic example of these differing perspectives belongs to Joseph, the son of Jacob, who rules Egypt at the pleasure of the Pharaoh. We’re familiar with the scene. Joseph stands before his brothers surrounded by the wealth and trappings of ancient Egyptian royalty. He grieves with them over the passing of their father, Jacob. All the while, Joseph’s brothers are nervous. They fear that without Jacob’s paternal authority, Joseph will punish them for their youthful, devious act of selling him into slavery.
“So Joseph went to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh” (Genesis 50:7). Escorted by family and dignitaries, Joseph leaves Egypt and returns home for the first time since his brothers did throw him into that pit. Joseph no longer lives in Canaan, however, so “after burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father” (50:14).
A part of us cries out. “Stay there in Canaan, Joseph! Don’t go back to Egypt!” Of course, we know what comes next. We see the grand sweep of the Bible’s narrative and our people’s history. Yet what Joseph understands is that he has already acculturated to a new home and location. He can be his old self in a new world.
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!'” (Genesis 50:15). But at this point in his life, Joseph doesn’t see the damage in what they did. In their bad act, Joseph now sees good.
Joseph’s brothers didn’t know that, so naturally, they were nervous. One midrash asks of this scene, “What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father,” it is suggested, “they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.”
What was Joseph thinking as he peered into this crater? How did he remember that moment in his life? What future could he imagine with his brothers, those who had threatened to kill him?
A midrashic answer: “Joseph stood up and prayed, ‘Blessed is God Who performed a miracle for me in this place!'” There, gazing into a barren pit, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees the wonder, mystery, and graciousness present in his life. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God.
Joseph evaluated the experiences and reality that became his life’s story, and as a result of all that had occurred, retrospectively he doesn’t see the damage. Instead, Joseph sees the purposes of God in the events of his years. “Besides, although you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20). Deeper still, Joseph has discovered a truth about himself, and the rest of us as well. In the midst of our affluence, our intelligence, and our skills, Joseph’s perspective teaches that we live best with a perception of God, a perspective that humbles us, helps to frame our relationships with others, and can assist us each to define our own place in the world.
What does it mean to be conscious of God? Such an awareness or faith is our way of organizing, and imposing significance upon, the many circumstances and situations that make up our lives; those compelling moments about which we also form idealized memories, recollections sometimes detached from the actual facts of what took place. In other words, how we understand the events we experience defines how well we respond to them, and the meaning we derive from them.
This was Joseph’s insight before his brothers. He was able to describe for them the results of what they had done. He was able to discover a purpose and attach a meaning to all that he had experienced. “Do I take God’s place?” he asks (Genesis 50:19). Of course not, all of us can answer along with Joseph. Each of us stands in our own place, responsible for understanding the flow and consequence of our own lives’ choices, and relationships.
The gift we are given by the Torah is attentiveness — a consciousness of God that points us toward the ideals and beliefs that ought to matter most in our lives. Such insight is focused on that which transcends the specifics of particular events, highlighting their essential legacy instead. But, it does depend on how we look at it.
Some of us, like Joseph’s brothers, can only see the facts of what has happened, standing nervously by waiting to see what might come next. Others of us, like Joseph himself, can learn to put those facts into a larger context, to appreciate them with sacred sensitivity, and though not forgetting what has taken place, take responsibility for seeing in them a consequential meaning for our lives.
Rabbi Ron Shulman
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Vayehi are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.