Reversals of Fortune: Parshat Vayiggash 5763
There’s a famous Chinese story that begins like this: Once upon a time a poor boy in a village received an unexpected gift. A nobleman singled him out and made him a present of a horse. The boy was thrilled with his good fortune and ran to his father to tell him. But the father said, “Be careful, my son, for what at first appears to be a blessing may turn out to be a curse.” Soon afterwards the boy, riding his horse in the forest, took a bad fall and broke his leg. His father found him weeping, and cautioned him once again: “Do not be sad, my son. What seems at first to be a curse may in time prove to be a blessing.”
Some days later the king’s troops came to the village to conscript young men into the army to fight in a distant war. Because of his broken leg, the boy was not called into service. The father counseled him once again: “Do not give vent, my son, neither to joy nor to sorrow, for what appears to be a blessing may end up as a curse.” Sure enough, when the war ended and the soldiers came home, each one was awarded his own piece of land all but the boy who had not performed his military service. And so he was sent to work in the city as a common laborer.
As you might imagine, this story has no conclusion. It simply goes on and on, in an unending series of reversals. Good fortune is unmasked as bad, and disappointments are transformed into celebration.
The story is a lesson in equanimity; it encourages detachment from all the ups and downs of life, for no one can predict the ultimate outcome of any event. Best to meet all that happens with serenity, knowing that all joys and sorrows are transient.
Our Torah portion for this week makes a fitting companion to this story, for it, too, is a tale of continuous reversals, centering on a young hero whose fate seems an unending series of ups and downs. The last few chapters of Genesis tell the story of Joseph his journey from favorite son to despised brother, from his pampered childhood to the darkness of the pit; from captivity and slavery to master of Potiphar’s house; from prison to the pinnacle of power in the court of Pharaoh.
For Joseph, as for the hero of our Chinese story, good fortune rolls over into bad and then back again, mimicking the unpredictable nature of our own lives. But there’s one crucial difference in the outlook of the Biblical story. For Joseph, the reversals in his life are not mere accidents of fortune. “Do not grieve,” he says to his brothers in the climactic scene of this week’s portion. “Do not feel guilty that you sold me into Egypt. For it was to save life that God sent me here, so that I might be a source of sustenance to my brothers in time of famine” [Gen.45:5].
For the Torah, life is not a meaningless string of ups and downs. There is a shaping hand behind the scenes; there is purpose and coherence to the seemingly arbitrary events we experience. Though we may not be able to discern it, God’s master plan determines the pattern of our lives. All things all joys and sorrows unfold according to that grand design.
Joseph cannot know that his own story, which reaches its happy ending in this week’s portion, will roll on into the book of Exodus, resulting in 400 years of slavery for his descendants, followed by the joy of liberation, then wandering in the wilderness 40 years of struggle followed by triumphant entry into the promised land, and on and on from there. So also, we ourselves never live to see the full span of our own stories. Our perspective is limited to the tiny segment we experience between birth and death. Events that we know as blessings may turn out to be curses; curses may unfold, some day, into unexpected blessings.
But serenity and indifference in the face of life’s vicissitudes is not the lesson of Torah. Torah is not about detachment; it is about caring passionately, and striving to make life better. What, then, can we learn from the remarkable story of Joseph? Lessons that are not easy to accept in our time: our vision is limited; our perceptions, imperfect; and there may be, despite all evidence to the contrary, purpose and meaning to this random adventure we call life.
Can it be true? Does a guiding hand shape the flow of history, and do our own small stories fit into that grand design? In the winter of our discontent, in these darkest days of the year, we are given the story of Joseph: a story that teaches us to trust that ultimately, it all makes sense.