Parashat Vayeshev 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Joseph’s life’s ups and downs
This week we are starting to read about Joseph’s life. Starting with this week’s parashah until the end of the Book of Bereshit, we will be reading Joseph’s stories.
It is interesting to note that of the fifty chapters that compose the Book of Genesis, exactly half – twenty-five- are about Jacob and his family. Of those twenty-five, thirteen are devoted to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. The Book of Bereshit devotes more space to Joseph than to anyone else. It means that we have a good understanding of his journeys during his life. We witness his experiences, mistakes, and changes from the time he was a young man until his death.
Joseph had a life full of ups and downs. Starting with his dreams during his youth, which showed how he wished to be a great person and to be highly acclaimed by his parents and brothers. His pride and arrogance in his early age caused his brothers to throw him in a pit, a very low place. Joseph’s dreams were of a high position, but his brothers brought him down.
After this episode, Joseph was sold and became the right hand of Potiphar. He went up, but then, he went down again this time to jail, accused by Potiphar’s wife for abusing her.
Having the skill of interpreting dreams, he went up again, becoming the right hand of Pharaoh in Egypt and becoming a very well-known and recognized person.
Without a doubt, Joseph’s live was composed of ups and downs. He could rise to high positions of recognition and authority and, at the same time, he was taken down into deep and low places.
Thinking about these extremes of ups and downs that Joseph experienced in his life, I remembered a wise Chasidic teaching. This teaching comes from Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha. It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “Bishvili nivra ha-olam” — “for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “V’anokhi afar v’efer”— “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.
In his youth, Joseph strongly believed “for my sake the world was created.” But then, his brothers showed him the slip that says: “you are but dust and ashes.”
After that, when he was deep in the pit and in jail, Joseph could read the other slip again that says: “for my sake the world was created.” Probably, this expression reminded Joseph of his special skills and sharp intelligence and gave him the courage to go up again.
Maybe, if Joseph had these two slips in his pockets, as Rabbi Simcha Bunem recommended, he wouldn’t have had to go so drastically up and down so often.
This teaches us that, in order to find a balance in our lives, we should limit our pride and arrogance, remembering that we are but dust and ashes, and, at the same time, we should re-enforce our self-esteem remembering that “for our sake the world was created”, that we have many skills, gifts, and good qualities to offer, and to share during our lives.