By Rabbi Jim Rogozen – December 15, 2018
When the Eagles reunited for a concert tour in 1994, Glenn Frey remarked, “For the record, we never broke up, we just took a 14–year vacation.” Well, my wife Marci and I never broke up with the Library Minyan, we just went on tour – the Jewish Education Tour – for 32 years. We are happy to be back in L.A., back in the Library Minyan, and we thank all of you for being so welcoming.
When a Head of School changes jobs, it almost always means a relocation. Our 32-year journey included several moves. We’ve lived in Northern California, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida, and now, back here in Pico Robertson.
The good news is that our moves served our family’s needs: better professional opportunities, more Jewish infrastructure, or being closer to family. And I’m happy to say that our 19 years in Cleveland gave our children a chance to be in one place from preschool through the end of college.
With each move we faced new realties: new houses, new work cultures, new people. As long as we could find the Food Trinity – Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Starbucks – we knew we would be okay.
With each move, there was also an opportunity re-assess and re-commit to our core values and family goals. Knowing who we were helped us navigate our journeys.
During each annual re-read of the journeys in Genesis, we encounter texts we’ve seen many times: we know the plot, we already know what’s lurking around the next corner. So it’s natural to look for some new insights or lessons. This year, after what we hope will be our final move, I challenged myself: What can I learn from the journeys of the Avot and Imahot?
One thing that stands out to me is that the book of Genesis, among other things, is a veritable travelogue of journeys and transformations.
- The world goes from chaos to order.
- Adam and Eve leave paradise for the messiness of real life.
- Noah sails off to a new world
- Avraham’s “founding family” moves around, adopts a new religion and a new land.
And in this week’s parsha, specifically, the book of Breisheet starts to wind down as the story arcs of Yosef and Yaakov come together.
With each step in their journeys, the three generations of Avraham and Sarah’s family had to do their own re-set. Who were they to one another? To the people around them? How did they understand their move to each new place? Was it due to something they did, or was God pulling the strings? Was there something they needed to learn?
These are the kind of questions we’ve all asked ourselves during our personal journeys. And yes, we’ve all been on journeys – some easy, some difficult. And we know that, over time, the questions change, as do the answers.
Classic Midrash has been the go-to place to understand the inner dialogues of our ancestors. But as we know, Midrash has an agenda. It often characterizes our ancestors, not so much as individuals with free will, but as models or archetypes who often follow a set of divine roadmaps. In mystical texts they are thought to be more than human – they are the Amudei HaOlam – the foundational pillars of the world.
So as much as I like Midrash, I found that the peshat, the plain meaning, spoke to me more directly this year.
Let’s look at how Yosef’s understanding of his journey to Egypt evolves.
When Yosef finally reveals his identity to his brothers, he says:
וְאַל־יִ֨חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם
“Don’t reproach yourselves because you sold me; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”
In this verse, Yosef is saying, “Yes, you did a terrible thing – you sold me! – and that’s on you. On the other hand…there was something else going on, and the result was good!”
In the next verse, we see a transformation. His anger disappears completely. He changes his personal narrative.
וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם לָכֶ֛ם שְׁאֵרִ֖ית בָּאָ֑רֶץ וּלְהַֽחֲי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם
“God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives.”
In this verse, the brothers’ bad actions aren’t mentioned. Instead, Yosef says that their safety was the real purpose of his time in Egypt.
And finally, Yosef reformulates the story that his brothers, and we the readers, already know to be different:
וְעַתָּ֗ה לֹֽא־אַתֶּ֞ם שְׁלַחְתֶּ֤ם אֹתִי֙ הֵ֔נָּה כִּ֖י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים
“So, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
We don’t need Midrash to “interpret” this exchange for us. Yosef is already interpreting it for himself.
We can relate. We’ve all had the experience of re-formatting our memories, taking past events, and understanding them differently as the years go past. For instance, my wife recalls our garden in Northeastern Florida where vegetables grew quickly; I remember the bugs and the humidity. My wife thought the people in Florida were very nice. I remember that half of them owned guns and the other half were just plain crazy.
While Yosef is able to forget the bad, and to reframe his journey as part of God’s plan, his father is still struggling. When Pharoah asks Yaakov how old he is, Yaakov replies:
יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י
“The years of my sojourn on earth are 130. Few and hard have been the years of my life.”
One could hope that in his final years Yaakov would be able to put his life into a more positive context. Maybe Yaakov just needed more time, or perhaps he realized he was running out of time. His final words to his children in next week’s parsha are, to put it mildly, mixed blessings.
So, one lesson for me this year is that we are the interpreters of our lives.
Emily Esfahani Smith writes that “Creating a narrative about the things in your life… helps you understand how you became you.” She adds that, “…we are the authors of our own stories and can change the way we’re telling them.”
Professor Dan McAdams, an expert in narrative psychology, says there are two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves: contamination stories (the bad stuff, going from good to bad) and redemptive stories (where the themes are about love, growth, and success).
Taking it a step further, as we move through our journeys, we can use our narrative of the past to better understand our present, as well as shape our future.
Being a descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, and following in a long line of misnagdim, I am going to break ranks and go Hasidic for a moment. Don’t tell my relatives. Here goes…
Hillel, in Pirkei Avot, famously says: בִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ
This is usually translated as “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a “man,” or a “person” — meaning, be the mentsch in the room. But Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Ishbitz, a Hassidic master, said that it’s not about there being no other “people” or mentschen around; it means that each of us must fight against our own sense of complacency. He quotes: Mishle (Proverbs) 3:5:
Even if you think you’ve learned a lot, or that you truly understand something, don’t lean too much on what you know now. Learn more; re-evaluate. Later on you might come to new conclusions.
So, another takeaway from Breisheet: the journey is an ongoing lesson.
Our daughter’s high school had a great motto: we learn not for school, but for life. But the lessons of life don’t come easily; they must be learned, and re-learned.
As a response to what she was seeing on campus, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote in her book, How to Raise an Adult:
“If we prevent our children from learning how to navigate the world beyond our front yard, it will only come back to haunt them later on when they feel frightened, bewildered, lost, or confused out on the streets. Each of us…is on a life path that ought to be constructed by our choices, paved with our experiences, and aimed in the direction of our dreams.”
Perhaps our ancestors should be called the Amudei HaOlam (the Pillars of the World) — not because of their perfection, not because there are mystical and hidden meanings to their actions, but because theirs are the first comprehensive stories in the Torah about the journey to be fully human.
In his biography of Leonardo de Vinci (who moved at least 7 times in his life), Walter Isaacson wrote that it took Leonardo 14 years to paint the Mona Lisa. “He added thin layer after layer of little glaze strokes as he perfected it, retouched it, and imbued it with new depths of understanding about humans and nature…as it was with Leonardo, who became more profoundly layered with each step of his journey.”
The more we know about life, the better. And the more we learn from our journeys, the better able we’ll be to deal with change, and to create change when it is needed.
Just as “God is מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית …in His goodness, continually renewing the work of creation”……we must do our part.
Living in a time of dramatic upheaval, cynicism, and a profound search for meaning, we all need to remind ourselves that we are not just readers of other peoples’ life stories; nor are we powerless victims of other people’s plots. We are מחדשים — re-creators, world shapers.
We have the ability and the obligation to re-center and re-balance our communities, and our country, restoring hope to everyone we can, including those who feel that their journeys, their life stories, have been discounted or dismissed entirely.
So what did I get out of re-reading Breisheet this year? It reminded me that our ancestors were the first, but not the last, to head out on journeys that changed their lives and the lives of those around them. And that what we learn in our personal journeys, through the laughter and the tears, gives us the ability, and the obligation, to create a better future. May we all have the hutzpah and the courage to serve, in some small way, as our generation’s Amudei HaOlam – the pillars of a better world.