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Friday, November 26, 2010

Parshat Va'yeishev: Casting Our Ego Into the Pit

This week's parashah/portion is Va’yeishev (Genesis/Bereshit 37:1-40:23).  It tells the story of Joseph's growth from adolescence to adulthood.  At the beginning of the parashah, Jacob is living in Canaan with his twelve sons and one daughter. Born when Jacob was elderly, and to his favored wife Rachel, his father dotes upon Joseph. Jacob demonstrates his preference by presenting Joseph with a beautiful coat of many colors. The other brothers are already jealous of Joseph, but this coat, and what it represents, further fuels their jealousy and hatred.

The Torah says that Joseph's brothers hated him so much, that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:4). But Joseph really didn’t help matters.
  For in addition to his coat, Joseph possessed a great ego. He reported to his father whenever his brothers misbehaved. He told his family about his dreams which seemed to suggest that the members of his family would one day bow down to him. Between how he acts and what he shares with them, Joseph only intensifies his brothers' feelings toward him.

One day, Joseph is sent by his father to check on his brothers as they tended the flocks in the field.  On his way to find them, he encounters a stranger who asks him "what do you want?" He says that he seeking his brothers and the stranger tells him where they might be.  As they see Joseph approach, the brothers decide to kill him. Reuben, the oldest, asks the others not to kill him, but instead, to throw Joseph into a pit. When Joseph arrives, his brothers strip him of his coat, throw him in the pit, and dip the coat in blood to present to their father. Jacob assumes from the bloody coat that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. He is inconsolable. Reuben later decides to return to the pit to rescue his younger brother only to find that Joseph has been sold to traveling merchants and taken away.

Joseph is then taken to Egypt and purchased as a slave by Potiphar, the highest-ranking officer of Pharaoh. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his household and, with God's help, he manages it excellently. Potiphar's wife then tries to seduce Joseph, but he refuses. In anger, she lies to her husband and accuses Joseph of attempting to force himself on her. Potiphar then has Joseph thrown in prison.

Even in jail, Joseph seems to be blessed.
 He is put in charge of the other prisoners, including two of Pharaoh's former servants. One night both of these men have dreams, which, again with God's help, Joseph interprets. Joseph's predictions, which are based on these dreams, come true. Pharaoh's former baker is put to death and the cup bearer is returned to his old job. Joseph asks the cup bearer to remember him so that he too can be freed from jail. The cup bearer quickly forgets until much later.

In reading this narrative, I am drawn to the idea (based, I believe on a principle of Freudian dream analysis) that each character in the story can be seen as representing an aspect of each of us.
  In this way, the story of Joseph is our story not only as a people, but also as individuals.

Using this approach, I clearly see Joseph representing the ego in all of its self-centered glory.  Joseph sees himself as the center of the universe, just as the ego within each of us seeks to convince us that we are indeed the center of the world.  And how we are drawn to believing the ego's message!  How often we are tempted to clothe ourselves in the equivalent of a coat of many colors.
  A façade that show others and us our individual glory and status!  How often we are also tempted to show others how much better we are, just as Joseph does through the recounting of his dreams to father and brothers.

Our ego has taught us well how to protect it, for it knows that it's existence is dependent on our belief that it is real.  Just as Jacob protects, coddles and adorns Joseph, so do we shield, nurse and polish our egos.  As Joseph and Jacob dwell in the protected valley of Hebron while the brothers are out working in the open fields of Shekhem, we keep our egos hidden and protected within, so as not to be subject to attack from the forces that seek its ultimate destruction.

When Jacob finally sends Joseph to seek out his brothers, it is a signal that the
status quo is about to shift.  Yet, Jacob does this subtly, simply asking Joseph to seek out the "shalom" of his brothers.  This is strange request, considering that his brothers have known little shalom/peace – especially when it comes to their relationship with Joseph.   However, the journey upon which Joseph is sent is the journey of discovering that peace … which ultimately is also Jacob's peace … and our peace.  Little does he know that this peace can only be achieved through him being cast into the depths of the pit of suffering.

Joseph leaves the protection of his father and begins his journey by walking into the emptiness of the wilderness in search of his brothers.  There he encounters a stranger (viewed by the classic commentators as an angel/messenger of God). The stranger does not ask him "Where are you going?" but rather,” What do you want?"  Joseph responds that he seeks his brothers and asks where they might be tending their flocks.  The stranger tells him that they have left and that he overheard them saying, "Let us go to Dothan."

The Hassidic Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotzk comments that "the angel taught Joseph here, that whenever he finds himself wandering on life's paths, when his soul weeps inside him from despair and doubt, he should remember first to become clear about what he really wants and years for.  Then he will be able to return to his task; his vision and his path now will be the same."

And what is it that Joseph yearns for? As pure ego, he yearns for nothing more than his self-aggrandizement.  As an extension of his father (an egotist in his own right, judging from his younger days!), he is on a journey seeking the Shalom/Peace of his brothers.  He is seeking, as I believe we all are, a reunion with all the disparate parts within that makes us whole (shelaimah) and at peace (shalom).  The brothers, who in a few moments will try to kill their brother, represent those forces within each of us that we often ignore (as Jacob seemed to ignore them), yet which can eventually bring about salvation.  They can represent the more assertive, even aggressive, parts within us that will do anything to achieve their goal.  Yet, as shepherds, they also represent the tenderness, caring and compassion within us.  These brothers, each described later as unique in his own right, represent the disparate forces from within that.
   These various forces and attributes may seem at odds with each other.  But they join to achieve the same goal.  They realize that the only way to achieve peace and wholeness is by sublimating the ego so that we can realize that we are all a part of the One of the Universe.

Therefore, Joseph must be cast down into the pit. The ego must be sublimated in order for the process to begin.  Creating a state of upheaval, pain and uncertainty must negate the status quo.
  The coat given to him by Jacob is torn from him, he is thrown into the pit and then Jacob is put in a state of pain an upheaval when he believes Joseph to be dead.

Our sense security and even complacency must be torn from us, just as Josephs' coat is torn from him. Yet, even after all that occurs, we watch Joseph, the ego, rise again to a position of prominence in the house of Potiphar.  Yet that episode also ends with him being cast once again into prison.  For the ego does not want to give up its life – it's hold over us – without putting up a fight!

The ultimate reunion of brothers with father, the union of all parts of us within the One will not take place until three weeks from now.  In the meantime, we will watch as Joseph, our collective ego, continues to rise and fall as he wanders on the paths of his journey until he – until we –finally discover the answer to the question of the Divine messenger "what are you looking for?"  For, as Reb Menachem Mendl said, we must eventually come to the place where our vision and our path are one. At that moment, we will come to realize that each and every step of the path is acknowledging and feeling deep within that I am not me and you are not you, but we are all one within the Divine flow of the universe that we call God.

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