I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.
This quotation is by Gilda Radner, an American comedienne and actress. It comes from her book, It’s Always Something, which she wrote after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
For me, this week’s parashah is concerned with the issue of how to deal with life when things are uncertain and not going the way we had envisioned.
We see Jacob struggle with his future and that of his sons. When told that Pharoah’s deputy required Benjamin to return to Egypt Jacob exclaims, much like a spoilt child; “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me.” 1 It is strange that despite all that God has done in the past for Jacob he still moans about what is happening. Surely if anyone is to be content with life’s ups and downs it would be Jacob. Maybe Jacob, like a lot of us, just does not understand why bad things happen.
Jacob does, however, show a transformation in his thinking. When his sons again tell him that Benjamin must be delivered to Egypt he says, “As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved”. 2 What’s happened in between these two conversations? He seems to have achieved acceptance about his future and is now willing to trust in God. Has he had time to reflect and meditate on the situation, and on his past behaviour, and realised that moaning is not effective? Or has the desperation of the situation forced him to re-assess his behaviour?
It is not only Jacob who struggles with uncertainty. Joseph, his son, is in another land clumsily working out how to act when his brothers ask him for help. Joseph’s brothers end up bowing to him just as his childhood dream had predicted. It is, however, up to Joseph to work out the details of what should happen next as the dream left important gaps in predicting his future.
So what does Joseph do when his brothers bow down? He panics. He decides to hide his true identity, to disguise his emotions by leaving the room to cry on two occasions and by tricking his brothers into returning with his beloved brother Benjamin. This is not role model behaviour for a man of God. The lies and deceit highlight Joseph’s emotional immaturity. He has no idea what to do in in this complex situation and seems not to trust God. The future is now without shape and Joseph is left adrift and unable to cope. This resonates – it is often very hard to make sensible, non-emotional decisions when life throws us a curve ball and the path is not so clear.
Joseph and Jacob help us to learn a valuable lesson – that it is not the end goal that matters or whether there is a definite path set, it is how we deal with the process; how we act and behave with others. We have to try to act as kindly and compassionately as we can to others and ourselves, as it is never clear what the future holds.
In fact, in the times when life is uncertain, frightening and overwhelming, as it was for Joseph and Jacob, it is more crucial than ever to deal ethically with others rather than hide our feelings. Rabbi Howard Cooper in his book, The Alphabet of Paradise 3 gives voice to this idea:
Spirituality involves an intercourse with the world. How we act with each other – with family, friends, strangers, and particularly with those whom we experience as different from us – is the prism through which the integrity of our spiritual life can be judged.
Maybe this is what Jacob, in his old age, understood. And maybe he could have had a word with his son Joseph to help him understand that, as Gilda Radner said, we must take the moment and make the best of it we can.
1 Genesis 42:36
2 Genesis 43:14
3 Cooper, H. (2003) The Alphabet of Paradise; An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life, Vermont: SLP Skylight Paths. P.79
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.