Parhsa Vayeishev: Thinking Outside Our Spiritual Boxes

| parsha reflection |

This week’s Torah portion, or parsha, is called Vayeishev, which translates to “And he lived…” It is taken from the book of Genesis. It is a dramatic piece, full of deception, jealousy, and resilience.

It begins with a description of Jacob, the third patriarch of the Hebrew people with whom G-d made a covenant, and of Jacob’s preference for his 17 year-old son Joseph, evidenced by the gift of a multi-colored coat he gives him. Jacob’s eleven other sons are, unsurprisingly, jealous of this treatment, and Joseph adds fuel to the fire when he shares two of his dreams with them, predicting that he will someday rule over them. The brothers first want to teach Joseph a lesson by killing him, but they later agree to have him thrown into a pit instead. They dip his coat in goat’s blood to trick their father into thinking Joseph has been killed. Meanwhile, one of the brothers, Judah, secretly decides to sell Joseph into captivity in Egypt.

Judah goes on to marry and have three children, but is stricken with bad luck, including the premature death of two of his sons, perhaps due to his earlier sinful deed. Judah’s eldest son’s wife, Tamar, is determined to have a child from Judah’s family, so she disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces Judah. Ironically, he first wants Tamar executed when he learns of her “harlotry,” but later learns that he himself is guilty of sin, since he impregnated his own daughter-in-law with twins.

Joseph seems to have better fortune while in Egypt because, it is written, “G-d blesses everything he does.” Although still in captivity, Joseph is promoted to overseer of Pharaoh’s slaughterhouses. His owner’s wife is attracted to his charm and looks, but he rejects her advances, so she retaliates by lying to her husband that the Hebrew slave has tried to take advantage of her. Joseph is imprisoned, but wins over his captors while in jail and is appointed to a position of authority within the prison system.

I believe we can derive a couple of lessons from this parsha. Perhaps the most obvious one is that those who act out of jealousy to deceive others will eventually suffer the consequences of their actions, reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of kharma and “what goes around comes around.” Personally, I am more interested in Joseph’s ability to cope with whatever misfortune befalls him, and to somehow “rise above” each trial by connecting with those around him. His father chose him as the favorite from the start. Somehow Joseph is able to thrive in whatever situation he ends up in, even while enslaved and later imprisoned, and this ability to connect to others wherever he goes seems to be embedded deeply within him.

In my work in an outpatient substance abuse clinic I often feel weighed down by the pressures of the institution and heaviness of my clients’ struggles with addiction and mental illness. The nine to five grind can be oppressive, and I find myself seeking relief from many outside sources: family, friends, supervisors, therapists, yoga instructors, etc. However, I have also found comfort in the therapeutic relationships I have forged with my some of my clients, which can help us both to forget that this is not only “treatment” for them and a job for me, but also a profound moment of connection for us both. Those are the moments that help to sustain me in the day-to-day as I work to help others dig deep for their personal sense of resilience.

My kavanah, or intention, for our meditation practice this week is to think about the areas of our lives where we may be feeling out of control, “boxed in,” or trapped, and then remember the obstacles we personally have overcome to get to where we are today. Let us think about the people who have given us support and comfort along the way, and to access from own lives the energy and resilience within that has helped to sustain us.