At our Saturday Morning Shabbat service on January 7th, Rabbi Lizzi addressed the themes of suffering and redemption in Parsahat Vayechi, as well as in the greatest masterpiece in modern cinema — Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. You can also listen to this sermon on the latest Contact Chai podcast. This week, we’re on for Friday Night Shabbat on January 13th, and next week doing both Virtual Friday Night Shabbat on January 20th and Saturday Morning Shabbat on January 21st. Will we see you there?
I’ve been telling everybody to run, don’t walk, to see the movie Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. I think this might be the best movie ever made — the storytelling is on point, it is a textbook tale of the hero’s journey. It’s about a cat named Puss in Boots who goes on a journey to avoid his mortality, something he has never confronted before, because he’s a cat, and cats have nine lives. On the way, Puss in Boots meets a mangy, funny looking, relentlessly positive and optimistic stray dog. Along their journey together, the dog (who doesn’t even have a name) is asked how he can be so optimistic when he’s had such a hard life. Wearing a worn looking, raggedy little woven shirt, the dog describes how he once had a family and that family used to play hide and seek with him… like they’d leave him outside in the cold, but he would eventually find his way back in… or they would stick him in dumpsters and close it and run away, but he would find them in the end. Eventually, the dog says, they thought of a great hiding place for him: they stuck him in a sock with a big stone, tied it up and threw him in the river, and ran away. Puss, listening, has a look of awareness that this little dog does not appear to have, which is the realization this is no game of hide and seek. But with a smile on his face, the dog says, I never found my family again, but they were so thoughtful, because they gave me a rock to be my friend, and I got a sweater out of it. At which point you realize with horror that his raggedy shirt he’s wearing is the sock that he had been thrown into the river inside of, and he’s been casually wearing it ever since like a badge of his irrepressible resilience. There is not a hint of anger on his face as he recalls what should have been the most traumatic event of his life. Somehow he is able to reframe the events of his life through a lens of not just survival, but as having had a higher purpose.
It is said that pain in life is mandatory, but that suffering is optional. As we bring the book of Genesis to a close, The Torah is concerned with how we can live in the world and experience pain, disappointment, loss, sometimes by the people we trust and love most — yet somehow come out stronger, kinder, wiser than we were before.
This week we get the story of how the Descendants of Abraham the Ivri, the Israelite, ended up in the land of Egypt, with all of Jacob’s 12 sons now at the mercy of Joseph — the youngest brother of all of them. And you may remember that Joseph has had a hard life. As a child he had been Jacob’s favorite son (hugely problematic parenting style btw, to discuss another time…), and Joseph had been an interpreter of dreams, and had been quite arrogant, so much so that his brothers ganged up on him one day in the field and almost killed him but then eventually just sold him to a band of traders who brought him down to Egypt, sold him as a servant, and then he is thrown into an Egyptian prison on false charges. And the whole way we don’t get Joseph’s perspective. Until, in prison, he starts to interpret the dreams of the other prisoners. He takes the very thing that was dysfunctional in one context — his arrogance and dream interpretation — and figures out how not to run away from it and leave it in the past… but how to make it work, in a new context. And when people say to him, “How do you do that?” he’ll say, it’s not me, it’s God. God’s just working through me.
And this is his orientation, not just about dreams, but about life. God is driving the bus. I might not understand it, I might not like it… but I’ll trust the process, I will trust that this is God’s plan for me. Why? Bc it’s happening. This deeply held faith allows Joseph to survive prison until the moment that his dream interpretation lands him an audience with Pharoah who’s had some crazy dreams. Which this foreigner Israelite prisoner can interpret. And not only can he interpret, he also has ideas for agricultural and economic policy, to handle famine that Pharaoh’s dreams predict. Precisely the thing that was what got him in trouble with his brothers when he was a kid is the thing that redeems him decades later. He becomes economic advisor to Pharoah, which means that when a hungry, ragged group of Israelite brothers travel down from the land of Canaan to Egypt to find food… their brother Joseph receives them. And they have no idea who this government official is — he is after all speaking Egyptian and wearing Egyptian dress and make up… but he knows who they are. And he doesn’t just forgive them, like it’s all good guys, this was God’s plan all along. But he does have a framework for forgiveness, for seeing if they, like he, has grown through the experience of living through pain and suffering. And it turns out they have. Just as the years and the tragic events of his life have taught Joseph humility and wisdom, he sees that the years have taught his brothers compassion, and taking responsibility for one another. And so he reveals his identity — and as he does he says to them, “You may have intended harm but God intended it for the good, so I could be in this position to help our family through this famine.” And he shares food with them, and they bring Jacob, their father, down to Egypt, and he reunites with his son after all this time… there is a lot of beautiful, heartfelt weeping that happens throughout this story, which is unusual for the Torah. But underscores how much emotion these brothers were carrying, just waiting to pour out, not in anger and resentment, but deep, deep love.
But when Jacob dies, precisely the piece we read earlier, Joseph’s brothers get scared. They get scared that Joseph’s sunny, optimistic faith in God and the whole divine plan… was perhaps an act — like, now that there’s no Jacob in the picture, perhaps Joseph’s going to take his revenge. Surely, they imagine, the only reasonable response to being hurt so deeply, is to want revenge, to want to hurt back. They throw themselves at his feet and say we’ll be your slaves, only just forgive us!
But Joseph, like the little dog in Puss in Boots, shows not a shred of anger or desire for revenge. He appears almost mystified by the brother’s paranoia, says, “Don’t worry — look, you might have had evil plans for me back then. But God used you in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive many many people! Al-tira’u, don’t be afraid, I will take care of you and your children.” Thus, the Torah says, he comforted them and spoke to their hearts (Genesis 50:19).
The philosopher Soren Kirkegaard has said that life is lived forwards, but only understood looking backwards. After what Joseph has been through, no one would blame him for focusing on the pain, trauma and the cruel intentions of his brothers years ago… but that isn’t what he does. Rather, he focuses on the kind of person and leader he wants to be now, not in spite of the past, but in light of the past, meaning — after the cruelty visited on him, he knows better than to nurse and cultivate the anger, because he knows what it can do. Anger can make you feel righteous and right… But it doesn’t solve problems. It doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make for a good life, lived forward. So he cultivates faith, because he wants to be an agent for repair and healing.
And so at every moment we have a choice to make about how we want to understand the events and circumstances of our lives up until this moment. We can be prisoners of the harm done to us and marinate in that darkness, nurse our anger and hurt… or will can we see the events of our lives — the good and the abjectly, unequivocally awful — as they are, and also as opportunities to grow and transform and create more light for us, and for those around us.
I realize I’ve used two fictional examples, Puss in Boots and the Torah, so allow me to make the point using real people, and real history. Dr. Viktor Frankl was born in 1905 in Austria and he was already a practicing psychoanalyst, specializing in treating patients with suicidal tendencies, when he was taken to the Theresianstadt concentration camp, and then transported to Auschwitz. As a prisoner there, what Frankl discovered there was that the Nazis took away almost everything that made people human: their possessions, their clothes, their hair, their very names. but they could not take away one thing: their will to live, their sense of purpose. And so he devoted himself to giving people a reason to live, a higher purpose.
His fundamental discovery for which he later became famous, was this: He wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And now I’m quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he writes, “What made the difference, what gave people the will to live, was the belief that there was a task for them to perform, a mission for them to accomplish, that they had not yet completed and that was waiting for them to do in the future. Frankl discovered that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” There were people in the camp who had so lost hope that they had nothing more to expect from life. Frankl was able to get them to see that “life was still expecting something from them.” One, for example, had a child still alive, in a foreign country, who was waiting for him. Another came to see that he had books to produce that no one else could write. Through this sense of a future calling to them, Frankl was able to help them to discover their purpose in life, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
The mental shift this involved came to be known, especially in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as reframing. Just as a painting can look different when placed in a different frame, so can a life. The facts don’t change, but the way we perceive them does.
Joseph wasn’t just an interpreter of dreams… he was an interpreter of life. Rather than seeing the events of his past as a fixed permanent negative, eternally awful in their impact on him forevermore, he reframed them as part of God’s curriculum for him, and part of God’s plan for him, his brothers, and all of Egypt. His suffering, hard as it was to endure, was possible to endure because he believed its purpose would be revealed.
Now perhaps you’re thinking — look sometimes pain is just pain. Sometimes suffering doesn’t have a purpose, and it’s almost perverse to assign meaning to some of the truly horrific things that people endure daily on this earth, or to suggest that war, torture, violence, genocide, rape, is part of some divine curriculum for self improvement. You’d be right. No doubt. For that reason, no one else can tell you the meaning of your suffering. And like Job’s not-great friends, you shouldn’t try to do it for them either. Only each one of us, living forward, looking backward, can put together the pieces of our story and tell a tale of redemption. And lest you think that this is something that people can do in the movies, or heroes can do in the Torah, please remember that every hero, every survivor, is just a person like you and me challenged with extraordinary circumstances that called up in them extraordinary power. Power that each one of us has and can use for the good, to redeem our story.
New years often come with a great sense of possibility and optimism, like if we just start new habits we can let go of the past and start fresh. But I want to ask us, how instead, might we honor the challenges and suffering we’ve been through, instead? How can we take the troubles that we’ve been handed as individuals, as couples, as families, as a country, and not ignore them or try to run away from them… but reframe them, lovingly, so that the pain of the past can be a teacher, can be classroom in which we practice being the version of ourselves that God put us in this world to be.
I wish you all a blessed, resilient, forward looking 2023.