Here we go again. This week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Joseph saga. In other words, yet another Genesis tale of a dysfunctional family. And Biblical siblings’s relationships are especially dysfunctional:
A man thinks God prefers his brother, so he kills him; a mother loses her cool over her son’s half-brother; two brothers vie for their parents’ attention; a pair of brothers kill all the men in a city because their sister was wronged; and an entire set of brothers almost kill their kid brother but decide to sell him into slavery instead.
What is wrong with these people?? I’m not naïve – I know that the perfect family doesn’t exist. Or if it does, I haven’t met them. But why are so many of the people we encounter in Genesis unable to communicate with each other, unkind, and sometimes outright cruel?
One theory is that the Torah wants to teach us that we need to suffer in order to learn and change. This may be true. As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, “In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience.”
Or, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (also known as the Kedushat Levi) said more simply, we experience descent for the sake of ascent.
This does not make us happy. Life would be much easier if everything went smoothly. And when we are in the midst of dealing with things that are really bumpy, the message that we can learn and grow from the experience is unwelcome and upsetting.
One of the worst things to say to a person who is suffering is, “Everything happens for a reason.” Because sometimes there isn’t a reason. And sometimes we don’t learn and grow, we just make it through.
But one of the most beautiful things about being human is that we can take those experiences and create a new reality for ourselves. We don’t have to read the Kedushat Levi’s message as saying we must fall in order to rise. Instead, we can understand that when we do fall, we can use the fall as a springboard for rising.
Yes, bad things happen. This is, as a friend put it, baked into the human experience. But if we remain victims, unable to learn and adapt, we miss an opportunity to rise above. And from that higher place, perhaps to gain perspective.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting a new book by Ursula K. LeGuin and my copy arrived just in time for me to read this: “For the seeker, the answer is less important than what the seeker does with the answer.”*
We can use these experiences, even those that are the most painful and disheartening, as tools toward a new understanding, perhaps even a new self. As we continue to read Joseph’s saga, we will see that he did exactly that. May we too be blessed with the wisdom, patience, self-love, and insight to do so for ourselves.
*From the introduction to Ursula LeGuin’s No Time to Spare, which was written by her friend Karen Fowler.
With gratitude to Rabbis Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus, who reminded me at a low point that the heights are within reach.