Thursday, December 15, 2011

When Heroes Fall

In the life of each of us we face moments where our heroes disappoint. Sometimes its a teacher, mentor, or boss, someone we admired and thought of as better than they turned out to be. Sometimes its our parent, our mother or father, who we adored growing up yet who, we realized as we matured, was flawed, not only in general, but even in the way they raised us. There are few more painful moments in life than those moments when we realize our heroes had clay feet.It becomes still harder to accept when we realize those we thought loved and cared for us in the absolute were comrpomised themselves and indeed so too was the love and care extended to us.

What do we do with our new insights into our former heroes. Therapists have made a career out of treating men and women like us with just that problem. Some ouf us, unable to reconcile our current perception with our former, break off all connection with the hero of yesterday. We bury the relationship and all it contained claiming it was all a sad mistake. Others of us, difficult though it be, try to find a way to salvage what can be saved from the relationship. We work to not let our disappointment and shattered ideal poison what blessing remains possible in the relationship. True, we say, the other may not be who we thought they were, but that does not mean they have no redeeming virtues. We attempt to reset the connection under perhaps a lower callibration.

In many ways the later is the work of adult children. Unlike in our youth where we idealized our parents, as we mature we must find the courage to see our parents for who they really are, with their flaws. Seeing them in their nakedness is not easy.
Yet only then can we ever have a real relationship with them. Are we disappointed? Of course, inevitably. But with time and support we can turn that disappointment into an opportunity, a chance to have an adult to adult relationship with our parent, to know them, so that while they are no longer our hero they become something more precious, our friend.

I share this insight this week, as we read the parsha of Vayeshev, because their is a passage in the reading that speaks pointedly to this theme.
When Yosef finds himself in the house of Potiphar, the butcher of the Pharaoh, he is seduced by the master's wife who begs him to sleep with her. Though tempted, Yosef responds to her saying "Behold my master has complete trust in me, and has placed everything under my control. And there is no servant in the household more important than me, and he has held nothing back from me except you because you are his wife. How then can I think to commit such a great evil and thereby sin to G-d."

Yosef's ability to rise above his temptation earns him the title "Yosef Ha'Tzadik", "Joseph the Righteous". He is praised throughout the literature of our tradition for his self discipline in a most challenging time. Yet what I find surprising is the language of Yoesf's argument to Potiphars wife where he explains why he will not sin with her. He recounts all that her husband has done for him, stating how ungrateful he would be should he commit adultery with Potiphar's wife. Yet in the end Yosef said that if he were to commit the act he would "sin to G-d". Wait a minute. If he owed so much to his master for all he had done, he should have said "I will sin to your husband, my master". Why does Yosef recount all he owes to Potiphar yet claim the sin he would commit would be against G-d.

I suggest the answer here is relevant to our earlier discussion. Yosef was talking to Potiphar's wife. She obviously felt it was okay to sin against her husband in an illicit relationship. Yosef knew that while he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Potiphar, if he would have claimed the sin would have been against him, Potiphar, the wife might have said "You don't know my husband. He is abusive and a tormentor. He has committed horrible atrocities. He deserves to suffer. He has it coming for all he has done to me and others. He may be a hero to you but he is no hero. On the contrary he is a villain. He has had this coming for a long time."

Yosef silenced such a justification by claiming from the outset that the husband did wonderful things for him and while it may be also be true that Potiphar has no rewards coming to him because he is an evil man, yet he, Yosef, cannot wrong him.
Yosef in saying that his sin with would be against G-d, argued that his responsibility is to show gratitude to those who have been good to him, no matter who they are in other aspects of their life or in their personal nature. 'Hakarat hatov', showing appreciation for kindnesses done to us is a personal responsibility devolving on we who receive. We must show gratitude or else we sin to G-d. Our gratitude has not to do with the goodness or general worthiness of our benifactor.

For many of us, thinking about persons who have failed to live up to our expectations causes us to reconsider how we are with them. We withdraw and withold. Any debt of gratitude we may have had gets wiped clean. We simply say they are not deserving any longer of our appreciation.

Yet the story of Yosef tells us just the opposite. Yosef argued that he owed Potiphar. It didn't matter who he was or what he did. Yosef's debt was due for kindnesses received. We too have those we owe, parents, teachers, mentors, friends.
True they may have lost value in our eyes for wrongs committed or flaws in their personalities. We may now realize that they may even have caused us some harm.
Yet we cannot thereby excuse ourselves from our responsibility before G-d to be persons who show gratitude for the good received. Its not about them but about us.

To be a mensch is to be thankful, even when that thanksfullness is not easy to show, even when we feel ambivalent about the person to whom we need be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom

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