December 20, 2001
A Look Back
Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
When I was 16, my family moved from Santa Monica to Sacramento. I had just finished my first year at Santa Monica High School and had been selected to play drums with the school's jazz band in the Hollywood Bowl (which I did the night before we moved). I was certainly not looking forward to leaving all my friends behind -- and everything I had grown up with -- to move to a strange new place where I knew no one. But my dad had a new job, so move we did.
What I could never have known at the time, as I sat glumly in the back seat of my parents car on that long drive to a new, unknown life, was that Sacramento would provide me with some of the greatest experiences of my life. Because I moved to Sacramento, I became very involved with the local synagogue youth group so I could meet new friends and ended up being elected president, going to leadership institutes at Jewish camps in California, and then in New York, and started on the road that led me to become a rabbi.
Because I moved to Sacramento, I found a remarkable drum and percussion teacher, through whom I got my first professional job as a drummer at 16. A year later, I was invited to join the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, where I soon became the youngest principal percussionist in its history. I also had the privilege of performing all over California on tour with Germany's leading electronic composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and became involved with some of the leading avant-garde composers in America. I remember looking back on the move to Sacramento later in life and saying, "I guess there really was a plan for my life, and I just didn't know it at the time."
This week's Torah portion tells a similar tale about Joseph and his forced relocation to Egypt. Of course in Joseph's story, his brothers are so jealous that they throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery. After a series of ups and downs, Joseph rises to become second-in-command of all Egypt, and is responsible for saving his country and others from starvation during the great seven-year famine. The famine forces his brothers to seek food in Egypt, where they end up standing in front of Joseph -- whom they don't recognize -- and pleading with him for their lives.
In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, Joseph can't hold back the emotion that is welling up inside of him and finally reveals himself -- to their great shock and fear. In doing so, he tells them what human beings have so often said: "There was a purpose to what happened to me, and none of us knew it at the time." And in so saying, Joseph extended the hand of forgiveness to his brothers.
But it's more than that. Joseph, in this passage, did what we humans probably do best. He took the otherwise random experiences of his life, and he created a sense of meaning and purpose out of them. All of us do that. We look back at our experiences with a kind of spiritual 20/20 hindsight, and we choose what those experiences mean.
Joseph is a beautiful model for each of us. Each of us has the chance, over and over in our lives, to transcend difficult experiences of the past and to find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our relationships, struggles, triumphs and even tragedies. Perhaps that is the real lesson of this portion: that we are not trapped by the past; that we are not doomed to attach only one set of meanings to what happens to us and to the choices that we make.
As you look back over the past year and accept the challenge to find new meanings, perhaps you can forgive those who were the cause of petty hurts and injuries and find a renewed sense of your own vision of who you are and why you are here in the first place.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.