When I was a young boy, I used to watch a television show called “Branded.” At the beginning of each episode, we would witness a scene in which the main character, a soldier played by Chuck Connor, was drummed out of the Army. His hat was pulled off, his epaulets and buttons were torn from his uniform and his saber was broken.
Much later in my life, I actually witnessed a U.S. Marine being thrown out of the military for testing positive for drugs. The commanding officer stripped him of his rank and tore medals and other insignia off of his uniform. It was an emotional experience for everyone present, but most of all for the erstwhile Marine. It had to be one of the low points of this man’s life.
These scenes are reminiscent of the life of Joseph as described in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (literally “And he dwelled”). Joseph, the favorite of his father, was coddled in every possible way. This dreamer spoke of his ascendancy over his brothers and had dreams of lording over them. His father made matters worse by giving him his “coat of many colors.” I imagine that each time his brothers saw this coat it reminded them of Joseph’s favored status and drove them to hate him even more.
When Joseph approached his brothers in the field, they stripped him of the beautiful robe that he was wearing and they threw him into an empty, waterless pit. (Gen. 37)
Joseph, who had known nothing but love and favoritism by his father, was now cast into a pit that would have ensured his death had he not been sold by his brothers into slavery. His life took a dramatic turn for the worse and his future was precarious and uncertain.
Yet, while Joseph obviously suffered from the rejection of his brothers, as well as the indignities of slavery and incarceration that followed, in a very real way it was only during these difficult times that Joseph achieved his greatness. As a spoiled child, Joseph had plenty of dreams, yet all of those dreams focused on himself. He only dreamed of a world that revolved around his own power.
However, after he was imprisoned for being falsely accused of trying to force himself on Potiphar’s wife, he was in a position to interpret the dreams of others, including the pharaoh’s butler and baker. Joseph successfully interpreted those dreams as the butler was destined to be freed and the baker was to be executed. Years later, when the pharaoh experienced recurring inexplicable dreams, the butler recalled this Jewish lad in prison who was skilled at interpreting dreams. The rest was history. Joseph emerges to help the pharaoh understand his dreams and to implement an economic program that would bring the pharaoh greater wealth and influence than ever imagined.
Who among us doesn’t experience peaks and valleys in our lives? Obviously, we are most content when life is good and when things are going swimmingly. But what do we do when the world around us is crumbling, when we are stripped of our wealth, position or prestige? We can crawl into a fetal position and give up, or we can use our misfortune as a time to regroup, rebrand ourselves and find new ways to succeed.
Joseph teaches us that sometimes we can best succeed not by focusing on “the self,” but on others. When they see that we are capable and willing to assist others in their time of need —that inspires confidence and plants the seeds of success.
Joseph, despite all of his flaws, is still referred to as Yosef Hatzadik, Joseph the Righteous, by the rabbis. Perhaps that is because despite the challenges and hurdles in his own life, he succeeded in offering sage advice and assistance to others. Ultimately he was able to realize his own dreams by struggling with and solving the dreams of others. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired pulpit rabbi and past president of the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis.