וַיֵּשֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָֽעַן: אֵלֶּה תֹּֽלְדוֹת יַֽעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן
Va’yeishev Ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz kna’an. Eileh toldot Ya’akov: Yosef ben sh’va esrei shanah hayah ro’eh et ekhav batzon …
Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old, and he would tend the flocks with his brothers … (Genesis 37:1–2).
After many journeys, Jacob finally settles down. He will live on for many more years, but the narrative focus now shifts to his children’s generation, specifically to his favorite son, Joseph. The life of Joseph drives our story through the remainder of the book of Genesis.
Joseph is an amazingly rich character, encompassing qualities of arrogance and humility, betrayal and reconciliation, memory and trauma, the power of dreams and the way we create meaning out of our complicated lives. Joseph’s life is at the fulcrum of multiple narrative threads in the Torah reaching back to Cain and Abel, and ahead through the Exodus from Egypt. Joseph’s saga, though only 13 magnificently crafted chapters in the Torah, has epic proportions; Thomas Mann’s masterpiece Joseph and His Brothers, which expands on the biblical narrative (and which I truly hope to read some day), covers 1,492 pages!
Here I will focus on just one of the themes in Joseph’s story: the ups and downs of life. Joseph’s life is a roller coaster. He is his father’s favorite, wearing a special coat of many colors. His brothers throw him down into a pit as they debate whether or not to kill him. They haul him up and sell him to traders, who bring him down to Egypt as a slave: וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה V’Yosef hurad Mitzraimah — Now Joseph was brought down to Egypt (Genesis 39:1). Joseph rises up to be the steward of his master Potiphar’s household. But when he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he is sent down to the dungeon. Two years later, he is summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and he rises to become the vizier of Egypt.
Many years later, Joseph’s brothers bow before him as supplicants, begging for food, not knowing that this potentate is their long-lost brother. When Joseph reveals his identity to them, they fear for their lives and await revenge. But to their astonishment, Joseph reassures them: “Don’t be troubled that you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5).
Joseph could be understandably bitter about the trajectory of his life: cast out of his family, repeatedly betrayed, imprisoned despite his innocence. He could easily view himself as a self-made man, surviving on his wits and with no allegiance other than to his own survival. But that is not the lesson Joseph has gleaned from the descents and ascents of his turbulent life. Instead, Joseph sees the “downs” as necessary precursors to the “ups.”
The Hasidic masters coined a term for this perspective on life: יְרִידָה לְצֹּרֶךְ עָלִיָה yeridah l’tzorekh aliyah — “a descent that facilitates an ascent.” Jewish spiritual wisdom understands this phenomenon as intrinsic to our life here on earth. We all have setbacks in our lives; much happens to us over which we have no control and against which we must struggle, and that struggle can strengthen and ennoble us. We make poor choices, and then must recover and learn from them. We learn compassion for others by experiencing suffering ourselves. There is no rising without falling.
Mark Twain put it this way: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.”
I don’t share this glibly. Many times, the “downs” take us so low, and into such darkness and suffering that we cannot rise up again. Life is not an amusement-park ride; there are no seatbelts and no guarantees. Yet at the same time, we cannot gain in awareness, experience, faith or love unless we view the problems and setbacks in our lives as opportunities to learn and grow.
Jewish mystical teaching sees yeridah l’tzorekh aliyah as intrinsic not only to human life, but also to the entire pattern of creation. That is, the Divine light descended, or contracted itself, into physical form and inheres within every atom of the universe.
The nature of those Divine sparks is that they yearn to be liberated and restored to their infinite Source. For the mystic, this cosmic process is inevitable: What goes down must come up! But we humans, having been granted free choice, have the capacity to either ignore or to participate in this process, to hinder or to hasten the revelation of the light. Our holy task as partners in the process of Life Unfolding is to discern the holy sparks hidden everywhere in creation, especially within ourselves and within other people, to fan their flames with our love and to let those little lights shine. (Vayeishev is always read right before Hanukkah, and I feel a Hanukkah teaching coming on here!)
In the course of his roller-coaster life, Joseph gained a growing awareness that the downs were a necessary precondition for the ups that would follow. Joseph embraced his entire life — the downs as well as the ups — as inextricably linked. There was no episode that did not teach him. Every chapter contributed to making him the person he had become. In some inexplicable way, he was grateful for it all. So may it be for us.