Thursday, December 22, 2011

Re-thinking the Joseph Story

Getting to know oneself is no easy task. We can think we are self aware only to be deceived. One tool that can help in this work is to reflect on a book we read or a film we saw and to ask ourselves "which character do I most identify with?". Often what we discover will surprise us. Once we have identified the character with whom we most connect we can begin to explore the similarities between us and them and uncover components in our character that were earlier buried in the unconscious and emerge only when our guard is down.

The story of Yosef and his brothers begs for just such a reflection. If I asked with whom in the compelling drama do you most identify I suspect you would answer that you identify most with Yosef, the innocent victim and the later hero of the saga. Or perhaps, if you are in a more advanced stage of life, you might tell me that you identify with Yaacov, the old father, who feels the unending grief for a son lost and a family broken. Few of you I imagine would say that you idenitfy with the brothers. No matter how our commentaries explain their actions or attempt to make them understood, the brother's unconscionable deed of selling their own flesh and blood into slavery just doesn't feel like a response to family strife we can relate to or identify with.

But I invite you to step back a moment. The purpose of the blog "The Torah and the Self" is to learn about ourselves by finding points in common with characters in the Torah, even in the more obscure cases. The premiss we begin with is that we share, at least in some measure, a point in common with all people. And if the Torah is telling us about personalities, no matter how nefarious or extreme, they are meant for us to find in them a personal connection so we can learn from them about ourselves. Over the years, in the pages of the blog, we have found ourselves in the Pharaoh and in Esav, and from the deed of our parents both good and bad.

So let me ask again about our point of identification in the Yosef story. Can we find ourselves in Yosef's brothers, at least in some measure? What do they have to teach us about ourselves?

The Talmud tells us that one of its great sages, Rav, had the habit of visiting the graveyard, there to learn from the dead. One of the things he discovered was that 99% of people die as a result of the evil eye. Of course its not the evil eye that is the immediate cause of death. It would not be found on a death certificate. Nonetheless, whether the cause of death was cancer or heart failure, that which made the person mortal was the evil eye put on them by another.

The evil eye is another term for jealousy that one person feels towards another, a jealousy that prompts resentment, a jealousy that kills. So let's consider again. The brothers were jealous. Their jealousy caused them to hate their brother and resent his success. They sold him into slavery assuming he would die. We struggle to relate to such criminal behavior. Yet, as Rav discovered, its quite common to harbor ill will towards others, to feel resentment over their life's successes. We seem to all carry jealousy, so much so that nearly all people are made mortal by another's jealous feelings. In the end, while we might say we would never do the other harm or even wish him/her harm, that is but on a conscious level, what we are aware of. At a deeper level our jealousy too causes us to want to posess that which belongs to another and finds that which the other does have to be undeserved and more rightfully ours.

To the extent that Rav found truth in the graveyard conversations with the dead, we all cause harm by our jealousy and resentment, in ways not that much less significant than the brothers of Yosef. And while its true we are often blind to our resentments and jealousies, the brothers were equally blind to theirs. They had little conscious idea that their motivation to sell Yosef was rooted in self interest. We, like the brothers, will not recognize our jealousy and envy of others unless we admit that these unflattering character flaws live in us. Only when we stop pretending we are beyond such pettiness can it become possible for us to mitigate the jealous feelings and stop the effects of jealousy and the evil eye.

Now you may say to me "You have got to be kidding. Do you really believe in the evil eye?" Whether I do or don't is not so much relevant here. What is relevant is that resentment of others and their successes is legion. Jealousy does not belong to Yosef's brothers alone. It inheres in all of us. You say where?

Let's look at our lives. Honestly, how hard is it to be truly happy with someone's good news, especially someone we are close to and especially when we are deprived of the same gift. Of course we express happiness, and some of it is felt. But who in the secret of their own heart does not have a corner of resentment thinking "it should have happened to me". Which sibling is truly never jealous of his/her peer over success or nachas? Who has not looked upon the blessings of another and thought "I am more deserving than they". And I dare say every time we argue with another and get locked into an intractable struggle is it really a battle of ideas or rather of egos, with each of us afraid to let the other win.

I want to make clear here a distinction between envy and jealousy. I may envy another person's blessings, say that they have nachas from their children or study much Torah. That does not reflect a character flaw. I simply wish that I too could know similar blessing in my life. In envy I don't question whether the other deserves their gifts or want to take it from them for myself. On the contrary envy will often lead me to improve myself so I may be like the other and know the same gifts in my life. (To be an envious person is not a good thing but envy as a feeling can motivate me to improve and grow).

Jealousy is something else from envy. In jealousy I want what the other has. Still more, I feel I am more deserving of it than them. Envy leads me to admiration. Jealousy leads me to resentment of the other. Rav was on to something profound. It is impossible to be jealous and not have feelings of resentment to the other. And it is impossible to resent someone and not at the same time, at least in part, wish them harm, if not consciously than unconsciously.

No, I suggest we need to look to the brothers of Yosef and be not too quick to discount the points we share with our distinguished ancestors. It's not flattering to claim jealousy as operational in our life but I suspect if we had the courage to explore our behaviors honestly we would would find many many of our responses are rooted in jealousy and resenment. I will leave the work for each of us to do to unpack where that jealousy shows its ugly head. But I guarentee, if we are willing to look at ourselves and our resenments with curiosity rather than recrimination, we will find its expression everywhere.

The hidden gift of the story of Yosef and the brothers is that if these great men, fathers of the Tribes of Israel could have been victims of jealousy, we need not be ashamed to claim it is operational in our lives too. That does not make our jealousy or resentment go away. It does however make it okay to acknowledge.
And in our honest acknowldgement we have already made significant strides to self healing.

I am delighted to inform you that the best of the blogs over the past three years has just been released as a book "The Torah and the Self" by Yisrael Kestenbaum.
It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble and through Amazon amongst online book stores.
Thanks for all your support!

Shabbat Shalom

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