Fat Tuesday: History Doesn’t Repeat Itself…

There are so many interesting points in parashat vayeshev that it’s almost impossible to only focus on one section or moment. However, that’s helpful in this case, because I need you to think about two moments – one near the beginning, and the other near the end.

Near the beginning, we see the Yosef’s tragic downfall – favored by his father, gifted with prophetic dreams, young and idealistic and energetic, he is set upon by his brothers, stripped of the coat that is a symbol of his elevated status and thrown into a “bor” – the Hebrew word for a pit.

Torah tells us that the pit “was empty, and had no water in it”. One of the ways to understand Torah is to recognize that water is a narrative indicator of spirituality and faith. When we hear that Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe all met their wives-to-be by a well; when we read that a well followed Miriam as she and the children of Israel traveled through the dessert; we’re meant to understand more than just the presence of h2o.

So when Torah goes out of it’s way to say there was no water (of course there was no water, it JUST said the pit was empty!) we have an opportunity to think about Yosef’s spiritual state.

Fast forward to a section near the end of the parsha: Sold into slavery, Yosef has once again risen through the ranks. He is in charge of everything in his master Potifar’s house – with the exception of Potifar’s wife. She attempts to seduce him. He refuses. In his attempt to get away, he leaves his coat behind – the symbol of his elevated status among Potifar’s slaves. Unable to defend himself against the accusation of adultery, Yosef is thrown in jail.

Except the Hebrew word for where Yosef is thrown is – you may have guessed it – “bor”. A pit.

An anonymous source (although it’s often mis-attributed to Mark Twain) is quoted as saying,

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

But when we read about Yosef in jail, this time we read “…God was with Yosef, and He  granted him favor…”. In fact, Yosef’s time in jail (over a year, which is itself remarkable) is notable in how at ease he seems to be.

Loss of coat. Loss of status. In a pit.

Same refrain, so what changed?

The second time around, Yosef maintained his faith. He’d been through this once, and gotten through it. While many people would be prone to say “But THIS time it’s worse! But this time it COULD be worse! But this time…”

And in fact, that would be the wrong thing to focus on in the first place. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted several times that “why me?” is usually the wrong question and a waste of energy. “Why did this happen (to me)” expends energy on a fact (that “this” happened) in the vain hope that “this” will change. Which of course, “this” will not. This has happened. Nothing can alter that fact.

However, “What can I learn from this?” and “What should I do (or change in myself) in response to this?” are two very powerful questions we can, and should, ask ourselves in those situations.

When I look down at the scale and see a number, that’s the “this”. No amount of hand-wringing (or toenail trimming) is going to alter the number displayed. But I can transform that experience, my moment in the pit of despair so to speak, into something that helps me grow.