Parasha Vayeshev

A most memorable quote is the 2008 statement by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff (and now mayor of Chicago), which occurred during the time of one of the worst financial collapses.  He said, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that [is that] it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." 

While Rahm Emanuel gets credit, the concept is not new. I have heard variations of it from management types for years. The greatest exemplar of seeing opportunity in crisis is the Torah's protagonist featured in Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph. His story is entertaining and simultaneously instructive.  Its key literary feature is the opposition of appearance and reality. When Joseph appears to be the lucky son, lavished with paternal love and favoritism, his childhood is rudely terminated by his brothers selling him into slavery and cruelly leading their father to believe that he has been devoured by wild beasts. When Joseph is brought lowest, God showers him with blessings, first in Potiphar's house and then in Pharaoh's palace. 

Chapter 39 resumes the Joseph story with him being "taken down" to Egypt. The text carefully plays on the earlier narratives with how others view Joseph. His brothers "envied" him (vayikanu vo), whereas Potiphar "acquires" him (vayik'neihu). In the end Potiphar, too, will have cause to envy Joseph, and the brothers will ultimately offer themselves to be "acquired" as his slaves. Up is down, and down is up -- nothing stands still in the life of Joseph.

We see the word "Vayehi" (Now it was....) four times in just five lines that start with Joseph's descent and end with his ascent. In Midrash Vayikra Rabba 11:7, a Diaspora tradition is cited to show that the wordVayehi always introduces trouble (tzarah), whereas the similar word V'haya always introduces joy (simcha). Our sages note where Vayehi introduces something apparently joyous, such as the creation of light on day one and the rise of Joseph in Potiphar's home. These passages begin Vayehi, and they portend blessing and success, not sorrow, right?

Call them gloomy or just realistic, but the sages say that these blessings were only apparent, not permanent. The light created on day one was a miracle light-powerful enough to illumine the entire universe-but God immediately hid it away. Vayehi ohr thus signifies the special sorrow of those who are granted a fleeting glimpse of a treasure but cannot enjoy it. Joseph is labeled as Vayehi ish matzliah (behold, a successful man!), but his success story is also only fleeting. True, he will rise in power, but his power will always be tinged with sorrow and tragedy. Joseph's wealth is the fruit of famine and enslavement, and Joseph will be forgotten, first by the butler in our portion's final word and later by Egypt itself.

The theme of the reversal of fortune is a favorite one of religious literature. It gives hope to the humiliated and humility to the powerful. As Shabbat Vayeshev leads into Hanukkah, this theme also sets the stage for the heroic efforts of the Maccabees and leaders of all generations who faced crisis with imagination, courage and resolve, leading our people from darkness to light, and from sorrow to joy. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham