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Parashat Vayeshev: Why We Need Resilience in These Times

By Yael Warach

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), introduces us to the dramatic tale of Joseph and his “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It’s the well-known story of Joseph’s journey from favored son and hated brother to Egyptian slave to (formerly respected and now imprisoned) servant. While a life that ping-pongs between such highs and lows might have caused even the most stalwart believer to despair, Joseph’s constant connection to his faith and God allowed him to remain resilient, even in the darkest moments.

Joseph, one of a dozen brothers, is favored by his father, Jacob. This favoritism, reflected in the beautiful coat Jacob gives to Joseph after he tattles on his brothers’ less-than-admirable behavior, only enhances the feeling of envy amongst his siblings. This jealousy and bitterness grow to hatred after Joseph (perhaps naively) decides to share two dreams in which he not only rises above his brothers, but also his parents. In a demonstrably dramatic overreaction to these dreams, his brothers sell him into slavery. (It could have been worse–they initially plotted to kill him.)

Surprisingly, Joseph flourishes in Egypt. He becomes the pharaoh’s personal servant and overseer of his property, once again showing us that he is, by his own hand or God’s, one who overcomes negative circumstances. But sadly (and fittingly in Joseph’s narrative of ascent and descent), his success is short-lived; when the pharaoh’s wife unsuccessfully tries to seduce him and he rebuffs her advances, she accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her. When the pharaoh hears her accusation, the position and favor Joseph curried with the pharaoh vanishes, and Joseph is thrown into the dungeons. Although others might pity themselves and despair, Joseph uses his wits to attain a position as overseer of the other prisoners. He remains resilient despite the obvious setbacks he has endured.

Among the many parables this parashah offers, one we might reflect on is that of resilience and the ability to triumph in the face of challenges, oppression, or hardship. How does someone, whose life is chaotic even by reality television standards, retain the belief that he will overcome and even succeed? In short, how do we learn to make lemons out of lemonade? Joseph, through his faith, believes wholeheartedly that he will prevail. He remains hopeful because of his resilience.

In the last nine months, resilience has become a popular topic. From the first question of “What is resilience?” to “How do we become more resilient?,” Judaism teaches that resilience is a key to success, both professionally and personally. Joseph’s resilience came from his faith, but one does not have to be religious (or ascribe to one particular religion) to be resilient. We do, however, have to be intentional about building our own resilience, through whatever means we have available—religion, music, art, reading, friends, family, or other outlets. Resilience it like a muscle—the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. As we head into what promises to be a long, cold winter season, one in which the surge of COVID-19 does not seem likely to abate, we must reach within ourselves to find resilience as Joseph does. Even when Joseph was imprisoned, he believed he would be freed, and he did not give up on his ability to triumph. It is not without faith (in religion, or routine, or other influences) that we will overcome any obstacles or hardships in our path, even if at this moment we cannot see the finish line.

This week also marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday during which we light candles to celebrate the resilience of the Israelites in the face of the desecration of the Temple by the Greeks. Each night this week, families around the world will gather together, eat latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and light candles in a hanukkiyah (a Hanukkah menorah) to celebrate this victory, this endurance. Through this candle-lighting ritual, we remember the resilience of the Jewish people—and others who face systems of oppression and hardship.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Hanukkah. Shabbat shalom.

Yael Warach is the professional development manager at JCC Association of North America.

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