When I moved to New York, I left my comfortable environment of “Automatic” tradition. At home there was a kosher kitchen, a weekly Shabbat dinner, a celebration for every festival. These things happened around me and were woven into my life. Suddenly at twenty four, I was on my own in a new city, working around the clock in a new job, and none of the spiritual comforts I was accustomed to were easily available to me.
But there was one thing that reminded me every day of my Jewish roots. I wore a beautiful Magen David gifted to me for my Bat Mitzvah by two of my aunts. Every time I looked in the mirror, and every time someone commented on it, I felt instantly connected to my belief system and my heritage.
The holy Zohar (book of Jewish mysticism) has a teaching. “The one who wants to go down to a deep pit, must first attach himself with a strong rope so he doesn’t get stuck there...”
We have been following the story of our forefathers through the book of Bereshit, and now Joseph has the leading role. Abraham’s great grandson and the fourth of the patriarchs, comes into our lives in a complicated and captivating story with some powerful teachings. The mysticism of dreams, meets age old sibling rivalry. Integrity, patience and faith triumph over manipulation and abuse of power. Honesty and goodness prevail and are rewarded.
A brief summary; Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is gifted to interpret dreams from a young age. He is abandoned by his jealous brothers who throw him in a pit in the wilderness, and when he is found he is sold as a slave to a dignitary of Egypt. When Joseph rejects the advances of his master’s wife, she has him incarcerated. During his imprisonment he accurately interprets the dreams of other inmates.
Some years later, his reputation reaches the highest ranks and he is called upon to decipher the mysterious dreams of the Pharaoh. His insight is rewarded. Joseph is freed from prison and appointed as governor of the land. Imagine that - the king of Egypt offers a Jewish slave the second highest position of office in the kingdom!
When a famine drives his brothers to Egypt in search of grain, Joseph hears of their arrival. He has not seen any of his beloved family in over twenty years.
Should he reveal his identity? Can he forgive them for leaving him to fare for himself all those years ago? He devises a test to see if his brothers have changed. When he witnesses their absolute dedication to one another, Joseph reveals the truth. In that moment there is the deepest outpouring of love, forgiveness, regret and sadness. Shared suffering and a euphoric relief. The pain of the years they were separated and the difference in their social stature all melt away; the pure unity of siblings is all that is left.
But how could Joseph go through all of that and still maintain, not only a healthy self-spirit and commitment to kindness, but also a Jewish connection?
Joseph was born into a family, a way of life and a land which were automatically infused with G-dliness and spirituality. Suddenly, he was betrayed by his own brothers; He was forced into exile (ie to live outside the land of Canaan); He was manipulated as a slave and then incarcerated; He rose to power and became incredibly wealthy, immersed in the heart of decadent Egyptian royalty - and despite all of this he still showed unwavering faith, love of G-d and personal integrity. He demonstrated the highest level of holiness in his benevolent and complete forgiveness of his brothers - men whom he could surely have punished if there was even a morsel of hate left in his heart.
Joseph literally and metaphorically entered the darkest pit of existence but he continued to stand on a holy foundation. What was the “rope” that allowed him to surface above the suffering and continue to breathe? We are told by the Torah many times in the parsha that G-d was with him, and Joseph knew this as well, ‘Interpretations are G-d’s business,’ replied Joseph. ‘If you want to, tell me about [your dreams].’ (40:8). I am reminded of a line I heard a few years ago - “When you are tied above, you don’t fall below”. Joseph’s connection to Hashem was the integral thread that prevented him from becoming despondent when life felt dire, and from losing himself with conceit when situations turned in his favor.
Joseph believed from the depths of his heart, that his life was a journey carved out by the hand of G-d. He had that incredible, selfless ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture. He understood that his suffering and his success were all in order for him to be able to protect his family from the famine and bring them down into Egypt, where they too would experience the challenge of maintaining connection away from their spiritual homeland.
There are times when we are blessed to be surrounded by people and circumstances in which the holiness flows “automatically”. There are other periods in which we feel more separated and have to actively seek out those sparks of divinity. When you have a holy connection you don’t drown in your despair and suffering, you don’t get swept away in the decadence of circumstance, you are not under the illusion that your success is only at your own hand.
Whether it is as simple as wearing a symbolic piece of jewellery, as frequent as a daily meditation practice or saying the Shema before sleep, or as intricate as keeping Shabbat, we must each find the threads that speak to our hearts and keep us connected. Strand by strand, they form the rope that leads to the light, from even the highest of highs, and the deepest of pits.