This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) begins the section known as the “Joseph Trilogy” – a section that gets our ancestors down to Egypt to begin the process of becoming a nation as we enter into the Exodus experience. This portion tells us that in their anger, the brothers through Joseph into a pit: “They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (37:24)
There is a classic rabbinic tale about dealing with adversity. A farmer and his family lived in a small, crowded house, with children always underfoot. The farmer was deeply unhappy, so he went to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi told him to bring some chickens, then some goats, then finally a cow into the house. The farmer found it intolerable and went back to the rabbi. The rabbi then said to remove the cow, the goats, and the chickens. Then the farmer then thanked the rabbi. “There is so much more room now.”
The story, for obvious reasons, is called, “It Could Always Be Worse.” It rang true with me this week. As some of you heard, we were without heat and hot water during and following Thanksgiving. But it could always be worse. We are able to use friends’ homes for hot showers and we borrowed and obtained space heaters. It was challenging, but we did have electricity, water and gas – so we could cook, boil water for sponge baths, and hook up the heaters. Yes, it was challenging, but it could have been worse.
Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, is the main character of this portion. I wonder if Joseph felt that it could always be worse. Here is a man filled with charisma, who succeeds wherever he goes, including the court of Pharaoh. Yet twice in this portion he finds himself in trouble. First his brothers cast him into a pit. The Torah teaches that the pit was empty, there was no water. Rashi, the medieval commentator, states that there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions. Joseph is pulled from the pit by a passing caravan but sold as a slave in Egypt. At the end of the portion, he is thrown into prison, falsely accused of sexual harassment. Although Joseph proves himself as a talented interpreter of dreams, but at the end of the portion he is forlorn and forgotten.
I wonder if Joseph knew during these difficult times that the pit and the prison were not his destiny. He was a dreamer after all. By next week’s potion he will become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Perhaps by thinking positive thoughts, he brought positive results upon himself.
Three and a half weeks ago, many of us were blessed to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the perfect time to give gratitude for the blessings we have rather than dwelling on what we lack. I know broken water heaters can be fixed. It could always be worse. Long ago a wise rabbi named Ben Zoma taught, “Who is rich? Whoever is satisfied with one’s lot” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 4:1). It is a valuable lesson as we enter the weekend of the Joseph story. And of course this is the theme of Hanukkah where one day’s worth of oil gave off light for eight days, and which begins on Sunday night. Remember, we are a people of hope!
SHABBAT SHALOM & HAPPY HANUKKAH