Friday, January 02, 2015

Finding the Good: Parshat Vayechi

Today is my oldest son's birthday. This week's parsha (also spelled parasha) — Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) — was his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah, and he and I spent months examining and re-examining it, talking about it, occasionally arguing about it. He chose to speak about whether or not Yaakov was blessing his sons or rebuking them, and what exactly constituted a rebuke. He also chose to avoid speaking about how the legacy continues of the younger son receiving the older son's blessing (much to my younger son's consternation). You can read the full text of his d'var Torah here.

Last year, the part that stood out for me was the passing on of one's legacy — knowledge, wisdom, beliefs, hopes, and dreams — from one generation to the next. Of course that made sense: my eldest was claiming his place in our community, accepting the legacy I and others were handing down to him.

And this year? This year a different part spoke to me. That's as it should be. That's why we read it again and again, year after year. The text doesn't change, but we do. Where we are in our lives a year later allows us to see messages that we weren't ready to hear a year earlier.

This year's gem is a short phrase that Joseph utters when his brothers beg his forgiveness after their father, Yaakov, has been buried. The brothers are worried that Joseph might still hold a grudge against them, and they send Joseph a message saying that their father (allegedly) instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. And Joseph responds by claiming that he is no substitute for G-d, and further, in part:

וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה השם חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה
And you intended evil upon me but G-d intended it for good...

For many of us, our lives are filled with a succession of adversaries. Some are small and easily overcome. Some are lifelong struggles that, G-d willing, when we look back in our final days, we'll see that we finally triumphed against. Overcoming the messages from my childhood (particularly the notion that no matter what I did, or who I became, I'd never be good enough) was a big one. Dealing with my depression, which I did actually liken to the yetser hara — the evil inclination as an adversary — here, was another. Coming to terms with having chronic physical illnesses is yet a third.

It's so easy to cry out, "Why me? It's not fair! Haven't I had enough?" It's even easy to look at others who have battled (or are still battling) cancer, loss of limbs, loss of their entire family in a tragedy, or other horrendous experiences and write off our own as not worthy in comparison. But pain is pain. Loss is loss. We're not in a competition. And I'm wondering if there's more to be learned from the adversaries I now face.

Somehow, I drew the genetic straw that gave me physical limitations that are sometimes severe, and a few even life-threatening. I can imagine speaking to them, to the genetic code, to the physical health legacy passed down through my biological ancestors, and saying to them, v'atem chashavtem alai ra'a, Hashem chashabah l'tovah. You intended me harm, but G-d has intended it for good.

And some day I will look back and see, clear as day, what the good was, and why this obstacle is so necessary to my growth.

Shabbat shalom!

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