Vayeshev: Winning by Losing
When does holding on to our truth destroy our truth? When does letting go of the future mean seizing the future? When does losing meaning winning?
These questions which seem like paradoxes are at the heart of what it means to live a life of meaning. In this weeks Torah portion, Vayeshev, we begin the Joseph novella that brings us to the end of the Book of Genesis. Jacob, now one-hundred years old, has twelves sons and a daughter. He loves all of them, but the Torah is clear that Joseph, the oldest son of Rachel, is his most beloved. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made a richly embroidered robe.” (Gen. 37:3)
With almost incredible speed, Jacob’s love is thwarted by his brother’s jealousy. In the following verse we read, “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to them.” (Gen 37:4) As the father’s love grows, the brothers’ love fades.
Soon after, Joseph had a series of dreams. He says, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed!”(Gen. 37:5). When he told his brothers of his first dream, where each brother represented a sheaf of wheat that bowed to his sheaf, the text is sure to add, “They hated even more.” (Gen. 37:8). His second dream, this one of the sun the moon and stars all bowing to Joseph, offended even his father.
This is the opening dynamic of the Joseph story. In just a few short verses Joseph is set up as the prophet whose prophecy destroys his relationships. He holds tightly to his truths, but in doing so, he forgets the people around him. Indeed, this is Joseph’s primary character flaw, and the one that we must all learn from. He, according to the rabbis, was vain about his appearance (Bereshit Rabbah 84:7; see Rashi to Gen. 37:2) and tattled on his brothers (Gen. 37:2, and see Bereshit Rabbah 84:7.)
So consumed was Joseph with his own story of grandeur that he was blinded to his brother’s hatred and his father’s disapproval. It is not a surprise that when he went to see his brothers tending their flocks, they first plotted to kill him, and eventually sold him as a slave.
Later, this dynamic plays out again when he lands in Egypt. Joseph’s narcissism brings him into contact with Potiphar’s wife. When she tried to seduce him and later accused him of attempted rape he was sent to prison with no ability to defend himself, innocent as he was.
Here is where the parasha leaves us. Joseph, the dreamer who thought he would be on top of the world with the galaxy at his feet, has fallen into pit after pit. His brother’s love became murderous. His slave master turned on him. He is now far from home, in prison as the lowest of the low. A prisoner-slave sleeping in filth. Here in this low place he reaches his nadir. There was nowhere else to go, no farther for him to fall.
In fact the last line of the Torah portion puts a capstone on this experience. “The chief cup bearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (Gen.40:23) Seemingly Joseph’s only chance of escape to freedom is now lost. The most beloved son, vain and magnificent with dreams of greatness has been left without hope. It is a story of Joseph’s hubris heading step after step, to the dark. Every good fortune that he has been bestowed is followed by a new unforeseen misfortune. All because he held on so closely to his sense of self.
I have seen many times when congregants of mine fall into Joseph’s pit. I have counseled many people who feel that the life they built with a network of friends and family is less important than their sense of uniqueness. So they cheat on their spouses or walk away from their family. They try to reinvent themselves without regard to the people who love them, and end up in my office more miserable than ever.
Luckily, the Joseph story is not a capricious tragedy. A second dynamic, equally paradoxical, springs forth. When in prison, for the first time, Joseph does not focus entirely on himself. Instead of using his prophetic gift to interpret and feed his own dreams, he begins to shift his thinking by helping other’s to pursue their own dreams. For the first time and in fits and starts, Joseph sees beyond himself. He begins to let go of his future and pours his energy into the other people. By losing, he begins to win.
After two years in prison, he is finally remembered. He helps Pharaoh first by interpreting his dreams and then again by saving the country by turning the dreams of other’s into reality. By the time Joseph dies, he is out of prison and has gained great power. He reconciles with his father and brothers. He saves their lives and the lives of all of Egypt from famine. He has a beautiful family and his posterity seems secured. As the Book of Genesis closes, Joseph is redeemed not because of his dreams, but because he finally remembered the other people in his life. As Joseph Campbell once wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
It’s not about the content of your dreams, but who shares your dreams with you.
That is how you win by losing. How letting go of the future gives you a future, and how meaning and relationship are the most sacred moments of life.