I have met many people during my rabbinate who have gone through all sorts of traumas in their lives and came out of those experiences with new outlooks on life. I am talking about loss of a loved one, illnesses, business and career reversals, criminal actions with incarceration, family break ups and the list is endless. Some emerge actually stronger and wiser while others never recover. How do those who find the spiritual high ground and are able to move forward call upon God and claim divine providence as a reason for finding stability and peace in their lives.
Why is that so?
We see this exact phenomenon with the story of Joseph when he reveals himself to his brothers in this week’s parash Vayigash. Joseph can no longer hold back his true identity before his brothers. He says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Clearly he has no intention of taking revenge. He is, rather, conciliatory and calls upon his brothers to approach him. Surely they are fearful of the shock and awe of seeing their brother whom they believed after all these years was dead. Instead of releasing anger he comforts them when he says, “Be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here; for god did send me before you to preserve life”(44:5).He tells them that he would relieve them of the famine in Canaan. He then concludes by saying, “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance”(44:7).
Joseph has transformed and reinvented himself from the brash teenager to the righteous man who sees a much bigger picture of his life’s purpose. This story is one of the great narratives in the Bible and in Western Literature to demonstrate the power of reconciliation. He has never abandoned his family and his faith through all the dramas and suffering he endured along with the mystifying story of his rise from slave to becoming second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Not only could we ask how did he hold on to ancestral faith and resist the inevitable temptation to exact revenge upon them? We can also ask how does anyone who has survived a trauma find the wherewithal to rise above the basest of human emotions? How does anyone find it within themselves to get over the pain and see that they have hope and strength to carry on?
Spiritual recovery calls upon us to choose the pathway of healing rather than perennial anger. Living with that kind of lifelong daily anger leads to self destruction. Releasing anger is one of the hardest things to do in life because the hurt stays with us every day. Turning the hurt into a sense of redemption and insight gives us a chance to find inner peace. Substance abuse patients, for example, often times find that healing by attending twelve step programs. They learn how to embrace the suffering so that they can transcend it.
How many times do we see people volunteer in causes that stem from the previous hurts they have experienced. Their devotion to those causes gives them the peace they yearn for in their lives. Joseph saw this when he twice referred to himself as a preserver of life. He does that for Egypt by storing the grain and saves the nation from its own famine down the road. He believes his mission is to help those in need. His faith in God becomes his pathway to reconcile the pain of abandonment by his family.Is his decision to welcome them a moral question or is it a spiritual quest for shalom of the heart?
One more piece to this question of why Joseph attributes his success and forgiveness to God goes back to the intellectual side rather than the spiritual. From modern eyes it appears that Joseph is saying that God’s providence was in part responsible for the outcome of Joseph’s journey and prominence in the court of Pharaoh. For Joseph giving God the credit is part of the humility of Joseph. Do we believe that God led him down that path? Was Joseph the one who determined his own course or was he walking the pathway that God set up for him? Are we in charge of our own lives or does God work mysteriously behind the scenes? Modern Jews struggle with the idea because secular knowledge reminds us that what happens to us is based upon our own actions or accident. We accept the notion that freedom of will explains what happens. We recognize that accidents happen or coincidences occur but typically most of us do not go as far as saying God determines the outcome of our lives.
My own view is that when Joseph says God led him to this moment it is not accepting the philosopher’s view of Providence or freedom of will. The language demonstrates that he sees his life in broader terms than the here and now. It is about a deeper question. Religion is all about asking fundamental questions about existence; “What is my purpose in life?” Do we not all ask that question at times?
Joseph is not the philosopher. He is the righteous man. He is the man of faith. He walks the line many of us walk. It is a line that we straddle between living life and making sense of it.