Part of a year long series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
Joseph is an exemplar of hope and resilience. After years of suffering — estrangement from family, sale into slavery, and false imprisonment — a seemingly chance encounter propelled Joseph from the pit of a prison to the apex of power. The lesson for us on resilience is how Joseph manages to maintain hope and succeed even in a place that reminds him of his suffering.
Joseph, known to his fellow prison inmates to be an interpreter of dreams, was summoned to Pharaoh’s court. Joseph is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams as representing seven years of plentiful food supply followed by seven years of famine. In turn, Pharaoh names Joseph as his vizier and gives him a wife. On the eve of the famine, Joseph has two sons named Manasseh and Ephraim. Manasseh’s name was described as meaning “God made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” Ephraim’s name means “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”
Within the choice of names, lies the key to Joseph’s resilience. Despite being elevated to prominence in Pharaoh’s government, Joseph still bears the scars of years of degradation and deprivation. The first phase of his recovery is to move past the hardships he has endured. Accordingly Manasseh’s name serves testament to the respite of forgetting. The gifts of forgetting, even if impermanent, are the valuable breaks from emotional pain. Forgetting comes to Joseph when focusing on the promise of the future and the possibility of joy as is embodied in the delivery of a newborn. In turn, we are reminded we can give birth to those opportunities of forgetting by having faith in the future and planning new endeavors.
The second name, Ephraim, is an appreciation for the recovery from loss. By this name, Joseph acknowledges the fruitfulness of his life, even in the place where he endured great suffering. Joseph may have felt himself as lost, cast into the pit and then thrown into prison. His consciousness might even have become conditioned to living in the lowest places. Yet, even in that geographic place where he was entrapped, and even among people who caused his enslavement, he transcends the pain. Joseph can succeed even in this place that reminds him of his alienation from family and his treatment as prisoner. And his ability to transcend is by his ability to find gratitude for the goodness that has accrued to him in his life. Joseph will not remain imprisoned by his own anger and disappointment, unlocking the door to a better future with appreciation of what is good in his life.
Joseph’s story gives each of us hope to survive until we thrive. We learn that unexpected outcomes may come and dreams may be fulfilled. And when changes occur in the world in which we live, we need to adjust our own expectations and attitudes to free ourselves from feelings of anguish and suffering. Whatever your challenges may be, secure some time for appreciation of what gifts life has brought and allow that gratitude sustain you along your way.
R’ Evan J. Krame