Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When Bad Things Happen....

There is an old epigram that was used to point out the difference between a Jew and a Goy. When a Goy falls and breaks a leg he is likely to curse and bemoan his unlucky circumstances. When a Jew falls and breaks a leg he is likely to say, "thank G-d, it could have been two!".

In that spirit, and knowing that "gam zu l'tova, this too is for the good", is an attitude we try to cultivate in the face of adversity, I want to explore with you a troubling passage in this week's reading of Vayigash.

We read this week of the reconciliation between Yosef and the brothers and of the family's move to Egypt. The Torah tells us that Yosef, the viceroy of the land, brought his father Yaakov to meet the Pharaoh. At the encounter the Pharoah asks Yaakov his age. In response Yaakov says something surprising. He tells the Pharaoh " The days of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty. Few and and bad have been the days of the years of my life. And they were not as good as the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning".

Many a commentary has sought to explain this encounter. What prompts Pharaoh to ask Yaakov's age? Why does Yaakov need to give the Pharaoh this report on the poor quality of his life ?

Interesting questions with interesting answers. But that's not what I want to focus on. Is it not surprising that Yaakov complains about his life, and to a total stranger. Where is the gam zu l'tova that we referred to earlier as a cardinal virtue of a Jew. Yaakov sounds so ungrateful for his life. Is this the attitude of the one our Sages call the b'chir sheb'avot, the most excellent of the three Patriarchs? If Yaakov had said he had a "hard" life we could understand. But he refers to his life as "bad".

In fact the Medrash tells us that Yaakov's response did not sit well with Hashem. In the words of the Medrash Hashem said, " Did I not save Yaakov from the wrath of his brother Esav? Did I not protect him from the evil designs of Lavan, his father-in-law? Did I not prevent the nations from harming him after his sons wiped out Sh'chem? Do I not deserve gratitude rather than complaint? The Medrash goes on to say that as punishment for Yaakov's remarks to the Pharaoh his life was shortened 33 years. Yaakov died at 147. His father, Yitzchak died at 180. The 33 year discrepancy corresponds to the 33 letters in the verse that begins with the Pharaoh's question of Yaakov concerning his age.

Okay, so we can say, with the Medrash, that Yaakov erred in complaining about his life to the Pharaoh. But I ask you, why does the Torah give us the story? It is not likely giving us the story to help us avoid similar mistake since it never specifically indicates that Yaakov sinned here. It tells us of this exchange and makes no reference to it being sinful. What then are we supposed to learn from Yaakov and his conversation with the Pharaoh.

I think to understand the message here for us we need to take a second look at our attitude to 'bad' things when they occurr to us or others. Yes, we know that "k'shem shemvarchim al hatov kach m'vorchim al hara", "just as we are commanded to make a blessing when good things happen to us we are also to make a blessing when bad things happen". But what's most important to realize is that its not the same blessing. When good happens we say "hatov v'hamaitiv", thanking G-d for His graciousness. When bad happens we say "baruch dayan ha'emet", blessing G-d as the true judge.

We do not pretend that we experience bad as good ! We don't celebrate tragedies as we would a simcha. On the contrary, we mourn and lament our losses. Even when we say "gam zu l'tova" we are not whitewashing something terrible. We are simply saying that "this too is good", meaning, it too has good in it for us, though it feels bad.

I can't over-estimate the importance of this distinction. A person of faith does not deny his/her experience of evil in this world. Maybe we were raised in an abusive home. Perhaps we saw violence against our mother or our sibling or even ourselves. Its is not the Torah way to say "oh it was not so bad", or minimize our pain. If we sustained tragedies in our lives, the deaths of those close to us, serious illness, business reversals, and the like, the Torah does not want us to pretend these events were good. We do not make the blessing hatov v'hamaitiv. On the contrary the blessing we make is baruch dayan ha'emet, acknowledging our suffering and loss.

It is only when we recognize and claim the bad that has happened to us that we can learn the lesson meant for us and derive the good from the experience that felt so bad. If we fail to call the bad by its name we never struggle with it nor will we use it for our becoming.

I believe this is why the Torah shares with us Yaakov's comments to Pharaoh. Yaakov claimed his experience for the truth that it was. He had a bad life. True, Hashem protected him. True also that much good came out of his life's journey. But that does not turn bad into good. It only makes bad a vehicle to access the good intended for us and others. That the Medrash says Yaakov was punished, was only because he failed to include in his remarks thanksgiving to G-d as well as the hurt and loss he suffered.It was not because what he said lacked truth.

The message for me in this is clear. We need to own our experience. Denial is not the same as faith. Bad is bad just as much as good is good. If we own our story with its hurts and tragedies we can come to make good from it. But our story itself will always retain aspects of tragedy. And it will always warrant tears and perhaps even anger amidst the joy and thanksgiving.

Yaakov's mida was emet, truth. Truth demands we be faithful to our experience, claim it without fear. In facing our truth we grapple with our bad and thereby allow the good meant for us in it to emerge.

Shabbat Shalom

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