What does it mean to be able to really perceive, not just observe? How can we look at a troubled period and see not just the facts, but the meaning?
As we enter a new secular year, how can we best learn to use the complicated mess of this past 12 months — three normal months, then nine months of Coronavirus tzoris — to achieve perspective on our lives and our world?
In the synagogue we have just finished reading the great book of Genesis, Breisheet. The fact we concluded the first book of the Torah right after completing a calendar year is a useful coincidence. So at this new-secular-year time, when we try to figure out just what happened over the past 12 months and what it all means going forward, we have the opportunity to do the same thing for the conclusion of the first of the five books of the Torah.
Each year teaches us lessons, both positive and negative. The Torah, with its Book of Genesis, is unique in the way this single text teaches us new lessons continually.
The end of the amazing Book of Genesis seems anticlimactic. The 12 Israelite brothers, the true B’nai Yisrael, have all been reunited in Egypt, our great ancestor Jacob finally dies, and the whole family journeys to Canaan to bury Jacob in the cave of Machpelah.
It is at this time that we are given the opportunity to try to glimpse the future. And a wonderful Midrash gives insight into the best way to do that.
A Midrash in Tanchuma recounts that when Joseph is returning from his father’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah, he passes the very pit into which his brothers had cast him, and stares into it. What might Joseph might have been thinking as he peered into the crater? How did he remember that moment in his life? What future could he imagine with his brothers, who had threatened to kill him?
The Midrash answers, “Joseph stood up and prayed, ‘Blessed is God Who performed a miracle for me in this place!’” There, gazing into a barren pit, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees the wonder, mystery, and graciousness present in his life. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God.
The brothers assume and fear that as he stands there staring into the very place of his original captivity, he is dwelling on the evil that they perpetrated against him, and now that Jacob is dead, Joseph will finally take revenge. So they send him a fabricated message with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, saying Jacob had urged Joseph not to take revenge. Joseph then weeps because his brothers have so little trust in his affection. He speaks to them gently and puts their fears at rest. “Ten stars,” he tells them, “could do nothing against one star, how much less could one star do against 10? How could I lay a hand on those whom both God and my father have blessed?”
Joseph sees so much farther than his brothers, here. He sees that internal hostility, divisiveness, negativity, and fraternal rivalry are not the way to act. His brothers see only danger and potential revenge, and are willing to lie to save their own skins from imagined evil.
Joseph, in these final chapters of Genesis, uses this moment of perspective, this opportunity to assess and understand the past and look to the future, to bring healing and reassurance.
It is a great lesson for us. May we, too, as we gaze back on a year of challenge and struggle, learn to capitalize on this secular New Year’s gift of perspective. May we, like Joseph, see how to heal the wounds in our own society and move from division to unity. And may we also apply these lessons in our homes, our families, and our Jewish community.
Rabbi Sam Cohon is senior rabbi of Congregation Beit Simcha and host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show.”