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Were You Sold or Sent? Choosing a Life of Bitterness or Brightness

By: Rav Yonny Sack

This week’s parasha begins with the climactic moment of revelation, where Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers with the words “Ani Yosef” leaving his brothers dumbfounded and speechless. They were standing there in a moment of terrible anguish at the thought of losing their brother Binyamin because of his alleged theft of Yosef’s goblet, and now the very source of their torment, the Egyptian prime minister who had caused them so much anguish, was now revealing that he was in fact their long-lost brother Yosef, now speaking to them with nothing but love, forgiveness and brotherliness. What Yosef says to his brothers at this powerful moment is particularly profound, and it reveals a magnificent insight that we would all do well to internalize.

When one reads through the past few parashiot, one can note that the brothers were remorseful for what they had done to Yosef throughout. Immediately after they brought the blood stained colorful coat to their father, they saw this spiritual giant descend into deep inconsolable mourning. The brothers regret what they have done and start to blame Yehuda for having come up with the idea to sell Yosef, saying to him “You told us to sell him! If you had told us to bring him back home we would have listened to you.”[1] Some 22 years later and the brothers enter Egypt the first time to try and buy some food during the years of famine. They break up and enter Egypt through 10 separate entrances in order to try and search for Yosef and retrieve him at any cost [2].  Then, when they are accused of being spies and are told they have to bring back Binyamin to prove they are telling the truth, they turn to each other, unaware that Yosef can understand them, and they say:

Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen, that is why this anguish has come upon us. Reuven spoke up saying “Did I not speak to you saying, Do not sin against the boy?...[3]  

It is fascinating to think that 22 years after they had sold their brother to slavery they were still living with their sin as if it were yesterday, that the current ordeal they are facing is immediately assumed to be the result of a 22 year-old act.  

And what of Yosef? His entire life had been filled with ordeals. At 9 years of age his mother Rachel dies during the childbirth of his brother Binyamin. He grows up without a mother and with brothers who see him as a threat. As a teenager, they hate him; they cannot even talk to him. He is beloved by his father, but rejected by his own brothers. His father then asks him to go and seek the peace of his brothers who are out shepherding and he obliges, but instead of finding brotherliness, he is thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery. In Potifar’s house, Hashem is with him and his grace, charm and resourcefulness leave him adored by his master but also by his master’s wife. She tries to seduce him and again he does the right thing – he says no, and how is he rewarded? He is wrongfully accused and thrown in jail for 12 years. 12 years of no communication, not a letter, or a visitor. Alone and rejected by everyone, Yosef’s young life is filled with suffering. But amidst this suffering he always rises up. He stands tall with grace and strength and rises to greatness in whatever situation he finds himself in. Hashem is with him and more importantly he is constantly able to see this.

Now with most of us when we try to do what we think is the right thing, and the road is blocked, the path is cut off, we feel a little rejected and dejected. If we are believers, open to Hashem in our lives, then we may very well think “I was trying to do the right thing, why are you pushing me away” as though no good deed is left unpunished. Is this not Yosef’s life? The heroic choices he makes trying to do the right thing are only met with anguish. One would forgive him for falling into despair, giving up hope somewhere along the way. After all, back then a slave was presumably a slave for life, and then after 12 years in an ancient Egyptian dungeon, who could still have hope of salvation? But Yosef lives in the light of trust of G-d, as the Midrash says “Praiseworthy is the man who places Hashem as his trust” (Tehillim 3) – This is Yosef”[4] This is a light that brings about clarity and infuses a strength that even the darkest times cannot overshadow. Yosef sees the meaning in his difficulties with such transparency that instead of harboring bitterness and resentment towards his brothers for all that they had caused, he instead only feels love and even cries tears of compassion after seeing them suffering the pangs of regret for what they did to him![5] 

In psychology there is a type of therapy called Narrative therapy [6]. Simplifying, the basic idea is that everyone has a story, the story of their life, their experiences, their pain or their successes. While I can’t choose the facts of my story that has already happened, I can choose how I tell my story. It is how I tell my narrative that dictates my current emotional response to my story. I can’t change the picture but I can change how I frame the picture. Reframing is not about uprooting what happened, it is about how I interpret what happened, it is about how I choose to think about what happened.  In narrative therapy one learns how to retell the story in a positive way which then retroactively reframes the experiences that are so powerful in fueling one’s emotional reality. In an incredible shiur, Rabbi Y.Y Jacobson said that in his mind, the ‘source’ of this narrative therapy is in this week’s parasha.

Immediately after revealing himself to his brothers he can see that they are finding it difficult to assimilate the fact that the Egyptian tormentor is actually their brother Yosef. He tries to calm them down and assure them that he is indeed Yosef and that they need not feel guilty:

 Then Yosef said to his brothers ‘Come close to me , if you please… I am Yosef, your brother – me, whom you sold to Egypt. And now don’t be distressed, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was as a supporter of life that G-d sent me ahead of you…’

It is Yosef who has suffered so greatly, but he tells his story in such a way that he focuses on the light, and realizes the darkness was only there to bring about that light.  Instead of taking things personally, instead of drowning in the rejection and bitterness of his past he reads his story with faith, hope and meaning. Instead of seeing his story as one of someone who was  “sold” – a lifeless, unwanted object, who could thus very likely be riddled with trauma and insecurity,  his narrative is instead read as one who was “sent”, a messenger, on a mission from Hashem Himself.  Rabbi Jacobson went on to explain the profound difference between looking back at your life, and telling your story as being ‘sold’ or ‘sent’. Both a sale and a ‘sending’ involve moving something or someone from one domain to another. But when you sell, the object is a passive recipient of circumstances beyond its control, the object has no say. When you send someone on a mission, you need their enthusiasm, their active participation, the mission would be futile where the person not be well equipped to be able to fulfill the mission and want the mission to be successful.

Yosef said to his brothers – you didn’t sell me, Hashem sent me! I was never sold, I was sent. That is how he read his story. If one is sold, they are a nothing; they are a ping pong ball tossed from one experience to another, with meaningless arbitrary ups and downs. How could you not be bitter, how could you not be vengeful? You are the passive victim. But Yosef chose to let Hashem into his story. He saw himself as being sent. He saw his life, no matter how difficult, as a mission.

A shaliach (agent/messenger) is active in his story, his life is meaningful, purposeful, and deeper; his mission is done with consent. Our holy sources say that our souls are given absolute clarity as to what our mission is in this world before we make entry and we consent to take on that mission. But while we are infused with a sense of mission on a soul level, it is buried deep within our consciousness, and we are born having forgotten who we are, why we are here. In a profound way, when we mature and realize, like Yosef did, that our life story is one of someone being sent, on a mission, then we tap into that elevated consciousness within, which accesses the original active part that we play in our own lives, we access a light of active meaning and purpose [7]. This is what Yosef did, and this is something that we all have the choice to do. It is a question of how you tell your story, how you are choosing to see your life - were you sold or sent?

(May we all merit to see lives and experiences with the correct frame, and live with a sense of mission and purpose, light and clarity that elevates us above the bitterness and resentment that are so prevalent in our world today,)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav Yonny Sack  


 


[1] Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi on Bereishit 38:1

[2] Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi on Bereishit 42:13, 14

[3] Bereishit 42:21

[4] Midrasha Raba, quoted by the Beit HaLevi at the beginning of Parasha Mikeitz

[5] The Torah tells us that when the brothers turn to each other and show remorse for what they had done to Yosef while in Yosef’s presence, Yosef has to turn away and he weeps over seeing them. Rashi there says that he weeps over seeing their regret and the Netziv explains that he is weeping is coming from his deep compassion for them “MeRov Chemla”. Additionally, when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers he asks all the Egyptians to leave the room so that the brothers would not have to suffer the embarrassment of this revelation in front of others.

[6] Developed in the 70s and 80s by an Australian social worker Michael White and a New Zealander, David Epston.

[7] This is all from Rabbi YY Jacobson. The entire shiur can be seen (video) on his website at http://www.theyeshiva.net/item/4037; his shiurim are exceptional. 

 

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