June 13, 2024
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Reflections on Sefer Bereishit, Part I: Appreciating the ‘Bitter’ and the ‘Sweet’

One of my favorite Hebrew songs, written and popularized by Naomi Shemer, and sometimes referred to as “A Prayer and a Promise,” speaks to the idea that the taste of the “bitter” enhances the “sweet.” This, I believe, is also a prevalent theme reflected in the story of the Jewish nation, told by our Torah. Each year as we transition from sefer Bereishit to sefer Shemot, I am always a bit saddened. This is because I believe that sefer Bereishit stands alone as the source and centerpiece of the Torah, setting up the trajectory of our journey in actuating the charge of “Kedoshim tihiyu—Thou Shalt be Holy.” In the stories of Adam and Chavah and our avot and imahot, we observe the emotional/spiritual progression of our people, as individuals, as a family, and as a nation. Given the innate drive we possess for perfection, one of the most important lessons we learn is that there is beauty in imperfection. This is because it offers us a path for spiritual/emotional growth. Beginning with the first couple, the shidduch made in Heaven, we learn that the challenges we face are meant for us to seek the help of God in determining and fulfilling our personal missions. This life lesson is reflected in the spiritual/emotional character development of Adam and Chavah, beginning with the seemingly ideal life they lived, residing in Gan Eden (Paradise.) Yet, it is not long before we are struck with the reality that when life is handed to one on a silver platter, this can sometimes be a curse rather than a blessing. Indeed, it was quite shocking that the couple failed to abide by the one and only prohibition they were given. To make matters worse, when they were caught in the act and given the opportunity to repent, they failed to admit their guilt or show remorse. Instead, they used the age-old defense mechanism of “projection,” and transferred the blame onto the others in their lives. While Chavah blamed the snake, Adam doubled up on his indictment, when he issued his complaint to God: “It was the wife you gave me, God, that made me do it.” It was only after the couple was banished from Gan Eden, and subjected to the challenges of life in antiquity, that they began the process of introspection, wondering what Hashem expected of them; and shifting their perspective from the “I” to the “You.”

Throughout the Torah stories, we continue to learn the importance of prioritizing the needs of others over the needs of oneself. Moreover, we come to realize that when we accepted the charge of emulating Hashem, Whose desire to give comes from a place of fullness, rather than need, we automatically make this shift in perspective This was first evidenced in Adam’s act of gifting his wife with the name of “Chavah” (the mother of all living things.). It appears that in experiencing the joy of becoming a father, he was so full of love and appreciation that he no longer viewed his wife as “isha,” an extension of him, “ish.” Instead, he now recognized and appreciated her uniqueness and the contributions she would make to mankind. Herein lies the first lesson on the power of words in relationships. This theme is further developed in the stories of our holy patriarchal families, as we observe their growth as individuals, as families and as a nation, from a posture of disfunction to one of functionality. We also come to recognize that this journey of spiritual/emotional growth is paved by smoothing out the obstacles in our character development by correcting the mistakes we make, asking for forgiveness from those whose lives we impacted in a negative way and forgiving those who erred against us.

In my own study on the spiritual journeys of our Torah role models, it was always the story of Yosef that captured my heart. In my eyes, he came as close as is humanly possible to achieving a status of near-perfection. Most importantly, this was accomplished despite the fact that he was the only one of our avot who lived most of his life in galut. In this way, he stands apart from all of our patriarchs in being the ideal role model in transcending the obstacles that continue to challenge and contaminate the state of kedushah we work so hard to obtain. It was Yosef’s belief in Hashem’s plan that nurtured and sustained his resilience and optimism, and that led him to accept the journey Hashem had in mind for him. Despite the ups and downs and all the places and spaces he occupied, from the bottom of the pit to the throne, he walked in the ways of God, in the constancy and consistency, even in his response to the challenges that Hashem sent his way. Through it all, he sustained his clarity in knowing that that every event in his life came from the goodness of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and for that he was ever grateful. As a result, like God, his desires came from a place of fullness, rather than need, allowing him to see his cup as overflowing, rather than empty. In turn, rather than falling into the trap of focusing on what was missing in his life, it was that which he could give to others, rather than what he could get, that informed his life. It was also this perspective that allowed him to forgive his brothers even when he could not forget the nature of their egregious sins against him.

It is for all the above reasons, that it hurts so much each time I come upon the interpretations that question Yosef’s sincerity in his exemplary act of forgiveness. Some even posit that it is this lack of authenticity that is the source of our galiot the suffering our nation has experienced throughout our history. They find proof for their arguments in the text and midrashim, claiming that Yosef simply delayed his nekamah (revenge) for the sake of his father. Following the burial of Yaakov, the brothers began to suspect that now was time he would take revenge. Yet even following this accusation, Yosef retained his optimism, and true to character, he attempted to comfort his brothers, with the words: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” In the above responses, Yosef demonstrates his sincere belief in hashgacha pratit, which speaks to his optimism and sincerity, rather than a disingenuous reconciliation; and that is why the arguments showcasing Yosef as less than genuine send chills to my spine. I see this as a misguided attempt to minimize Yosef’s accomplishments. Of course, Yosef was human, and therefore made some mistakes, which, as for all of us, were part and parcel of the vehicle for his growth. I believe that rather than criticism, we should offer gratitude for the zechut we have to learn from such an exemplary role model, by tapping into the beautiful life lessons he offers. This was particularly evidenced when he first revealed himself to his brothers: “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

May we internalize, actuate and enhance the script He wrote for us; and in doing so, may Hakadosh Baruch Hu gift us with a path in transcending the ups and downs in our lives. May our challenges only be small; and when they come our way, when we feel ignored, mistreated, neglected or left behind, let us lean on Yosef’s strength, optimism and resilience, and the comfort he offers us, as we imagine his words of advice to us: “Look into yourself and ask Hakadosh Baruch Hu, what He is asking of you. Perhaps He is sending you the same message He sent me, and you can respond in kind: ‘So, perhaps you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,’ I will survive, I will walk in the ways of God, with my strength intact, and my energy undiminished.”

In Parts II and III of this series, look forward to learning Torah-based insights and self-soothing strategies in dealing with the anxiety and depression one may experience during challenging times.


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chevrutah in cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at: [email protected] 

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