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How Joseph Maintained His Serenity

How Joseph Maintained His Serenity

Parshah Vayeishev

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The Baal Shem Tov instigated a grassroots revolution all across Europe, called Chassidism. At the center of the Chassidic philosophy, he placed the tenet of hashgachah pratit, divine providence, the belief that G‑d is really in charge, managing every detail of our lives. He had many opponents who challenged him. Perhaps they were frightened that this belief would cause people to shirk responsibility and become passive. But the Baal Shem Tov taught that a true understanding of hashgachah pratit breeds proactivity, not passivity.

How’s that? An examination of the biblical account of Joseph’s narrative can shed light on the matter.

The In his mind, it was G‑d, and only G‑d, directing his destinyTorah’s description of Joseph leaves no doubt that he was a man with an absolute commitment to his belief in divine providence. When Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, he helped them heal from their paralyzing guilt by sharing with them his take on being sold:

“But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G‑d sent me before you. For already two years of famine [have passed] in the midst of the land, and [for] another five years there will be neither plowing nor harvest. So G‑d sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve [it] for you for a great deliverance.”1

True, his brothers had taken him, a precocious son in Jacob’s illustrious family, and converted him into a piece of meat to be auctioned off in a marketplace. But he wasn’t angry with them because he didn’t consider them responsible for his humiliation. In his mind, it was G‑d, and only G‑d, directing his destiny.

Joseph’s time in Egypt went from bad to worse. Initially, he was sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian dignitary, where he was quite successful—but then he was arrested. His alleged crime was fabricated by Potiphar’s wife as revenge for Joseph’s rejecting her seductive advances. Joseph was forced to sit in prison for years.

All the while, Joseph remained true to his belief that G‑d was steering the course of his life, and that there was meaning behind all the chaos.

And then, one day, Joseph noticed that two of his fellow inmates were downcast. Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker had been imprisoned for culinary misdemeanors. Their pain concerned Joseph and he approached them. “Why do your faces look so down today?”

“We’ve had a dream,” they responded, “but there is no one to interpret it.”2

Joseph accurately interpreted their dreams. Two years later, the chief butler recommended Joseph to Pharaoh when he, too, had some disconcerting dreams. Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams; the rest is history. He became Pharaoh’s viceroy, and saved Egypt and his entire family from starvation during the famine.

But let’s go back to his original question, which spawned the whole sequence of events that followed: “Why do your faces look so down today?”

If Joseph would have felt helpless and irate—the way almost anyone in his position would have felt—he would have been incapable of responding to anyone’s pain but his own. Angry people don’t notice other people who are hurting. And why would Joseph have reached out to employees of a government that had wrongfully imprisoned him?

But But Joseph wasn’t angry—not at the government, not at Potiphar’s wife and not at his brothersJoseph wasn’t angry—not at the government, not at Potiphar’s wife and not at his brothers. And as such, he retained his serenity even in jail.

And so, Joseph was in tune with another person’s pain, and was therefore capable of doing that one small act of goodness and kindness. Little did he know that it would change the world.

The conviction that G‑d is right here, directing all that happens, is like a spiritual chiropractic adjustment—shifting our focus from frustration to curiosity. The instinctive response—“This is wrong; it shouldn’t have happened to me!!”—becomes: “This is an opportunity—why else would it happen to me?”

Our job is to look for opportunities to make a difference. And sometimes a small window of opportunity brings in a whole new world of fresh air.

This reminds me of the Rebbe’s response to a CNN reporter who stood on the famous “dollar lines” that formed every Sunday outside of Lubavitch World Headquarters. When his turn came and he stood before the Rebbe, he asked: “What is your message to the world?”

The Rebbe replied: “Moshiach is ready to come now. We all must only do something additional in the realm of goodness and kindness.”3

Footnotes
2.
Ibid. 40:7–8.
3.

Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, given on Shabbat Parshat Miketz 5734.

Mrs Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Fla., serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.
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Eduardo Spain December 2, 2015

Wau! Wau! What a final! Reply

Masha Lake Forest December 2, 2015

Beautiful Thank you! I really needed to hear this today. Reply

Ana November 29, 2015

Parsha / Vayeishev Great reading for today. Trust in G-d that all will turn out well and as G-d decides not man. Reply

Anonymous Sf November 29, 2015

Love this! Reply

Redneck Jew CA December 7, 2012

Forgiveness is divine. I guess this teaches the POWER of forgiveness. It,s not always easy though but we must because unforgiveness is like drinking poison and only the offended usually ends up drinking it and i speak as one who is currently learning this process. Hashem works EVERYTHING for good and for the benefit of others and ourselves sometimes and as i contunue this process of rebuilding my life i know hashem WILL someday show me the big picture and as Tanakh says "It was good for me to be afflicted". May Hashem's MIGHTY name be praised forever Reply

Dixie December 3, 2012

Joseph I want to thank you for this explanation, it couldn't have come at a better time in my life. I am in a situation where the actions and attitude of a family member makes me so angry I don't even like myself. I had forgotten how many times in my life where the most difficult times in my life have put me in a position where I needed to be for myself or someone else. I'm not saying I won't get angry again but I printed this out to read when it happens. Thank you so much. Reply

Susan Boca Raton and Montreal December 3, 2012

Our role and G-d's You write: "True, his brothers had taken him, a precocious son in Jacob’s illustrious family, and converted him into a piece of meat to be auctioned off in a marketplace. But he wasn’t angry with them, because he didn’t consider them responsible for his humiliation. In his mind it was G‑d, and only G‑d, directing his destiny." Another article on Chabad.org (in the Parshah section I believe) refers to the fact that Jacob clearly favored Joseph over his other sons and that Joseph played the role of tattletale by reporting his brothers' misdeeds to Jacob. Joseph also wasn't very tactful about telling his brothers and father his dream about them "bowing down" to him. How would any sibling react to all this? No, we don’t sell our brother into slavery but I wonder if it occurred to Joseph while he was cooling his heels in an Egyptian dungeon that he (Joseph) as well as G-d played a part in shaping the course of events (at least where his brothers’ ill will was concerned). I don’t think it’s written anywhere that you can act like a jerk with G-ds blessing. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich December 2, 2012

Thanks! It is wonderful to have such wonderful writings on the web. Trying to explain why someone should take the leap of faith that Gd will in fact provide for them, and even more so when they aren't selfish is a beacon of truth that needs to be shined throughout all creation, another idea that we can credit to many including the Baal Shem Tov. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA December 16, 2011

Joseph's Serenity You are soo right Mrs Holzkenner, keeping our serenity, trusting in Hashem is peace of mind, soul, and a healthy heart. As we are in this world in a daily struggle with diversities created by adversaries, we need to keep our serenity. The love of our G-d is a overwhelming medicine to our happy life. Thank you for such an article. Blessings to you and yours. Reply

Esteban cordoba December 11, 2011

"This is wrong; it shouldn’t have happened to me!!”—becomes: “This is an opportunity—why else would it happen to me?”
Our job is to look for opportunities to make a difference. And sometimes a small window of opportunity brings in a whole new world of fresh air"

Thanks a lot for this article, it´s extremely helpful Reply

Virginia Farmington Hills, Mi November 26, 2010

Divine Providence In "Dogs Decoded" a recent PBS program and in a NBC news program it says that we are hormonally disposed to empathy and kindness from birth.
At a time when we are hearing the Rule of Law turned upside down and backward, it is well to remember Micah "to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with our God" Reply

Carmen November 24, 2010

Re:i like this story I agree with you.

And, I believe, that trying to live as Joseph is enough for us.

I understand that having him ,and all the highest Torah patterns, as mind and soul models ,and avoiding to fall in any kind of idolatry(being this term very broad),is good enough for us.

I just disagree in my own life to be complacent with what does not follow such patterns,but of course I fall and fail...Our ancestors also did. Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl November 23, 2010

i like this story i totally agree with this story but have only one concern, the animal soul. it seems that Joseph had more of a G-dly soul unlike myself who have more of an animal soul. we are both creatures of G-d but Joseph believes more strongly than I. i could only hope to have the belief in G-d that Joseph had. sometimes i do, sometimes i don't. if there is anyone on this current planet that lives amonst the commoners and not surrounded by others who filter out the lowly types and does not get angry once in awhile, please introduce me. i am honest enough to acknowledge that although Joseph is 100% correct in living his life this way, in todays times married, children, household duties and all other daily mandatory regulations to abide by through current laws i could only wish to be as he. i suppose if i chose to i could but soon would be divorced, children disregarded, laws broken, bills unpaid. again, please introduce the fellow man who currently lives this way as i would love to learn from him. Reply

Rod Kingwood, Tx November 23, 2010

Trust Trusting hashgachah pratit, divine providence liberates the soul of worry and increases ones emunah. Trusting G_D free us to be a light in dark times. Reply

Carmen November 23, 2010

Normal people-and by normal I mean G-dly people, simply can not stand with others' sufferings-being these sufferings in any possible realm-having themselves suffered once that pain.

Normal people, see in others' eyes and lives what they themselves (or their ancestors) have passed through one day, and it hurts in them as if it were their own pains.

Only un-G-dly people,only idolaters (G-d forbid to even slightly reason like them) can feel otherwise.

Of course this look demands life experience, but moreover, it demands to be of a Joseph’s ancestry. Reply

Gene Bellvue, Colo USA November 21, 2010

Once again Once again I accept prompting that when G-d calls it usually is not to a life of kings palaces but through the desert on the way to the Land of Promise. Thank You Reply