Posted on May 18, 2021 by Aviva Melissa Frank
re·sil·ient | \ ri-ˈzil-yənt \
a: Withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture;
b: Tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
A Journey of Resilience: A Case Study of Yosef ben Yaacov
If we look to the Tanach, we see a Biblical ancestor/character who faced tremendous hardship yet remained resilient. He encountered loss of loved ones, uncertainty, pay cuts (sold into slavery) and cancled plans (from pit to dungen) yet he remained steadfast in spite of his shock.
How did Yosef do this, how did he go from shock to success? Which modalities and healthy coping mechanisms did he utilize to maneuver these trials and tribulations? How did he get out of the literal and the metaphorical pit? The American Psychological Association cites four components for resiliency: Connection, wellness, healthy thinking and making meaning of one’s situation (purpose). Yosef used at least three of these tools and strategies; he found connection, he used social-emotional tools for healthy thinking and he found meaning making. His approach was a bit unusual (and may have hurt more than helped the family dynamic in the long run). In the next few paragraphs we will look at Yosef’s journey as a case study- a journey of resilience.
Twenty-two plus years after being sold into slavery, Yosef is able to look into the pit (Bereishit Rabbah 100:8) and find meaning of his twisted tale. When his brothers question his authenticity (now that their father has passed) Yosef replies:
20) Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. (21) And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Beresheit 50:20- 21)
How did Yosef arrive at this place, a place of total forgiveness? And why did it take these additional years after reuniting with his brothers, for Yosef to reassure and reaffirm to his brothers that he had in fact- forgiven them?
As we just read in Beresheit 50:20- 21 Yosef saw his trials and tribulations guided by God. As building blocks to the fulfillment of his youth’s dreams, each step of the journey as a brick to the final monumental moment- in which he would be in the center with his brothers and father bowing down. He had faith and trust in God that these prophecies would be fulfilled. One could say his desire for these dreams to come true, was for his own glory, or rather, we could say by having them come true, this would allow him to save his family, save Egypt and save the Levant from the faminine. Having this purpose kept him on his path and connected him to God. In Beresheit 40:8 Yosef attributes his dream interpretation skills to God: “Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].” Having this faith and belief that it would all work out, provided him purpose and strength even in his challenging times. Just once, we see his faith falter, when he asks the cupbearer to remember him. “Yosef left the mercy above, and the mercy beneath, and the mercy which accompanied him from his father’s house, and put his confidence in the chief butler: he trusted in the flesh.” (Targum Jerusalem, Genesis 40) As a consequence, he stays jailside for two more years. (Rashi, Beresheit 40:23)
“Yet Yosef did not feel alone, he had a destiny to fulfill and it says when he looked in the mirror he saw his father.”(Zohar)
During all the years Yosef was alone; he was alone but not lonely. For he did not forget who he was or where he came from, or for that matter, where he was going. He had a purpose and a connection to God. He remained connected to his family. He simply looked into the mirror and saw them. As it is said, “Yosef’s beauty was like that of his mother Rahel.” (Zohar 216b) but he also looked like his father. For, “Whoever would look at Yosef would see the image of Yaacov.” (Zohar 1:180a, verse 8). And “His face (Yosef’s) was like his (Yaacov’s).” (Midrash Rabba 84:8) This gives new insight into the scene with Potipher’s wife when Yosef sees his father’s face in the window, which would not have been a hallucination, but rather his own reflection. “[When] ‘she grabbed him by the clothing and at that moment the image of his father appeared to him in the window. (Talmud Sotah 36b) When he looked up, he saw his father’s face- and he remembered his roots.
Yosef is never referred to by another personal name in the text; he held a royal title relating to his role as vizier and dream interpreter, Zaphenath Pa’neach (Beresheit 41:45), yet he never took on an assimilated name as we see with other biblical characters: Esther/Hadas; Miriam & Yochavad/ Puach & Shifra (Sotah 11B). He remembered. He was connected. So too, when he married Osnat/ Asenath she is said to be of his roots; either Jewish by conversion (Midrash Tadshe) or by birth as the descendent of Dinah and revealing to Yosef a gold plate with an inscription by her grandfather, Yaccov (Midrash Aggadah). Together they raise two boys, Menashe and Ephraim in this faith. It is said both boys were circumcised (Midrash ha-Gadol, Vayehi 48:8–9) and furthermore, Yosef presents the boys to his father by saying, “Father, my children are righteous like me.” (Pesikta Rabbati) For this, they merit Yaacov’s blessing to become two of the twelve tribes. (Yosef’s descendents receive a double portion/double blessing.) Menashe and Ephraim are the first brothers in the Five Books of Moses who actually like one another and get along.
In addition to connection, Yosef used social-emotive tools to keep his thinking and mood healthy. Commentators have counted seven times Yosef cried when faced with uncertainty. In these Tales of Tears he uses his tears as an emotional release, as a way to process overwhelming feelings, and in this manner as a tool for release, resilience and thus growth. (Beresheit 42:24; 43:30; 45:1-2; 45:1-2; 46:29, 50:1; 50:17) Yet these tears were not simply for self pity nor self care; they seem to also encompass prayer. He cried and possibly cried out to God for guidance.
Waiting to Connect
For all of those years he was alone, it has been asked (Ramban)- why did he never reach out to his brothers or father, especially after becoming a prestigious official in Pharaoh’s court? One thought is that Yosef was embarrassed by the dreams of his youth; he needed his prophecies/dreams to come true now before contacting his family. Another thought by Rabbi Shimshon of Sens, is that it was not for the sake of Yosef’s embarrassment but rather for that of his brothers:
“Had Joseph sent a message about everything which happened, his brothers would have scattered in every direction, because of the embarrassment. Therefore, Joseph worked slowly to bring them back to avoid embarrassing them. His intention was good.” (Tosfot Hashalem)
Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, asks a different question, “should we not ask the reverse question: Why did Yaacov not contact Yosef?”
Retribution & Accountability vs. Shame & Vengeance
Yosef’s resilience involved God, his roots, identity and the meaning making around his trials and tribulations- and yet what of the dynamic with his brothers and father? Did he hold them accountable? Did he forgive them fully? Did he ever seek any vengeance? Did he ever fully trust them again?
For when his father died, his brothers said,“What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him!” (Beresheit 50: 15) Why were his brothers convinced that Yosef’s conditional forgiveness only extended to them for as long as their father Yaacov was alive?
A part of resilience is personal forgiveness or forgiveness of another, forgiveness usually includes the acceptance by the offending party or the ability of that party to articulate what went wrong. Forgiveness might also include accountability or the ability of the offending party to offer reparations, right the wrongs and to re-earn lost trust.
Yosef in a bizarre prank, sets up a scenario for his brothers, the offending party, to admit responsibility; responsibility towards him and his father. He does so by (his assistant) hiding money in all the brother’s bags and in addition, a silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag. By doing this, Yosef recreates a scenario where a son of both Rahel and Yaacov would go missing. Or as Nechama Leibowitz says, recreating a similar situation for the brothers, a test of sorts.
We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave him, his father would die. (Beresheit 44:22)
This time,Yehdua speaks up, not to sell his brother (Beresheit 37:27) into slavery but to sell himself into slavery as a way to redeem Benjamin for the sake of their father. He offers himself in the place of Benjamin. He states that Benjamin is the youngest, a son of his father’s old age and dotes on him, and that both his mother and brother are dead. (Beresheit 44:20) We can interpret Yehuda’s statement as both acceptance and accountability. When Yosef reacts in the affirmative to Yehuda’s declaration, his brothers see Yosef’s sympathy or forgiveness as reliant on their father, their aging father (maybe Benjamin) and not them. They view this forgiveness as conditional.
(4)Then Yosef said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. (5) Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
(6) It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. (7) God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.
(8) So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Beresheit 45:4-8)
In this dramatic monologue, Yosef reveals his true identity, God’s plan and furthermore, that the dreams of his childhood have come true. How do you think his brothers reacted? Did Yosef set them up in this agonizing prank as a form of payback, revenge, or an earnest approach to admit accountability? Did he force his hand for them to apologize? It is reminiscent of the ill fated tale of Rav in Talmud Yoma 87a, verse 16 when he visits the Butcher for an apology.
One particular phrase from his monologue has worried many commentators: “…he whom you sold into Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4) Was mentioning this a power play or to bring on shame? Was it rooted in vengeance, a grudge or an “I told you so” sibling rivalry moment? Or was it an earnest attempt to disclose events of the past and catch everyone up to the moment. Dr. Avivah Zornberg, writes in The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, the mentioning of the sale purely for self-disclosure. “The secret of their sale was something that only Yosef could know, and, therefore, would serve as a certain indication of who he was. By also referring to himself as their brother, he was trying to mitigate any sense of shame that they may have had.” Dr. Zornberg continues, that Yosef’s entire approach was to minimize shame. Sometimes even our best attempts, have bad timing and are not interpreted well. The interpreter of dreamers, Yosef, could not foresee how his brothers would interpret or view his forgiveness as conditional, and be reliant on his father being alive.
We can look to Yosef as a role model and inspiration. We can also look at him as a whole human- to look at him with a critical lens: For he too had hiccups along the way and these hiccups too are an inspiration.It means that even the greatest amongst us makes mistakes. For we can learn from Yosef on how to be resilient during troubling times. How to remember our roots, stay connected, use social-emotional tools for healthy thinking and how to find purpose and meaning in our life even in spite of our current predicament. We can also learn that even the holiest of people sometimes say the wrong thing, at the wrong time.
These days (sadly) we have more opportunities than we would like to experience resiliency. For it has been a year of lockdowns and loss. Canceled plans and uncertainty. Pay cuts and financial woos. Health fears and for many, saying the final goodbye to loved ones. This year’s theme for the Winter Learning Intensive was appropriately placed.
This synopsis is based on a course taught by Aviva Melissa Frank (Hillel ’07, PCJE 2019-2021) during the 2020 Winter Learning Intensive.
Resiliency, Vengeance and Justice:
A case study of Yosef ben Yaacov
During these trying times, how do we respond versus react to uncertainty?
We will look at the life of our patriarch Yosef for insight and perspective, at his wins and at his losses, in order to better understand resiliency.