Torah | Getting perspective on our suffering

Vayigash
Genesis 44:18-47:27
Ezekiel 37:15-28

How do you describe the arc of your own life’s journey? If you were meeting a new person for the first time today, what are the highlights and themes that would inform your story? I have a clear memory of meeting new friends in high school and taking time to share our entire personal biographies; a few years later, in college, I lamented that we didn’t do this anymore because it took too long! (Sigh.)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt. His father, Jacob, comes down to live out his final days with his long-lost son in a reunited family. Joseph brings his father Jacob for an audience with Pharaoh, who asks him: “How old are you?” Jacob replies: “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years: few and difficult have been the days of the years of my life…”

Jacob’s narrative is a broken one. Despite having lived for a very long time, he does not see a narrative in the arc of his own life. Rather, he recalls the individual “days of the years” and does not see purpose and value in how he has spent his time. Rather, his story of his own years is that his days have been “few and difficult.”

Perhaps this was a transient moment of bitterness or grief and, at other times, Jacob had a more positive narrative to tell about his life’s journey. In the previous verse, he gives his blessing to Pharaoh, who had elevated his son Joseph and enabled Jacob and his children to settle together and be reunited. Or, perhaps, Jacob’s experiences in his family of origin and his efforts to find his own path left him wounded (Gen. 32:26), such that he “limped” through life.

In marked contrast is the story Joseph tells about the arc of his life — bullied by his brothers, sold into slavery, tossed into jail … but now he is in a place of generosity and understanding. In next week’s portion, Jacob forgives his brothers, truthfully naming what they had done but choosing not to dwell there: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). Despite hardships, betrayals and disappointments, Joseph’s story — in his own retelling — is a positive one. He is able to find meaning and purpose in the events of his life. He does not dwell on the wrongs done to him — not that there weren’t plenty! — but rather focuses on how his life has unfolded.

I do not believe that God in any way planned for Jacob to experience the various challenges that he encountered; they were overwhelmingly the result of his own and others’ decisions and actions. Nor do I believe that illness, tragedy or other life challenges are sent to us by God; the natural world runs its course (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 54b) and humans are free to act as wisely or foolishly as they choose. Cancer, leukemia and all other illnesses are the result of the natural process of biology, chemistry and physics. It’s hubris to assume everything that happens to us is about us. So I reject the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or that “one becomes sick to learn a lesson one needs to learn.”    

We do not need seek answers to “why did this happen to me?” But once something does happen, what do we do with it? For Jacob, it would appear, his life was always shadowed by his pain and it colored his experiences all the days of his life. Joseph, though, was able to look back and see what he could learn and build on from his own experiences.

While we do not control all the circumstances of our lives — despite our efforts to do just that — we can look back on our experiences and learn from them. Having faced illness or pain or disappointment, we can cultivate our own capacity for compassion, deepen our commitments to what we value and find renewed purpose and direction. Having moved through grief and loss, we can bring our caring and our insight back to the world, transforming our experience of suffering into service.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. This is his final Torah commentary for J. He can be reached at [email protected]