Fourteen years ago I stood up on a bimah in front of hundreds of friends and family members, and told them about Joseph and his dreams. I don’t think I could have imagined where that step into Jewish adulthood and responsibility would lead me, or what my Torah portion would one day come to mean to me. Moving through the world as a rabbinical student, ever-surrounded by the stories of my ancestors, the connections between these lessons and the world around us grow stronger each day .
Joseph is a dynamic and intriguing character. His gifts and flaws are relatable, and his floundering relationships hit close to home. Who hasn’t felt unfairly judged and teamed up against, betrayed by those we trusted? Joseph’s storyline is the ultimate fantasy—his rejection leads to success and ultimate power over those who hurt him. But it was a long road: first he was dumped in a pit, then sold into slavery, then falsely accused and sent to prison. Throughout these trials, Joseph is given many opportunities to transform into a better person, and it is this journey that is holds greatest lessons for us.
What is the quality that Joseph needs to transform? It is his humility. Joseph is the son of Jacob and his beloved Rachel, and his father gives him a “coat of many colors,” a clear sign to his brothers that he is the most cherished. When Joseph is 17, he tells his family of two dreams, in both of which each member bows down to him. Joseph is deeply spiritual and holds the gift of divination—his dream is indeed a view of the future. But his poor tact leaves us wanting. Even Joseph’s father, who loves him more than anything, is offended by the dream. It is easy to imagine Joseph relaying these dreams in his colorful coat, rubbing his father’s favoritism in his brothers faces while he predicts their obedience to him. He acts arrogantly, without humility, and this leads to rejection by his own family.
I can definitely relate to Joseph’s experience of rejection. When I experience rejection, it forces me to acknowledge that there is hard work to be done, and that my pain has to give way to transforming myself into the person I hope to be. I believe that my life is about my purpose in the world, the way my gifts support the earth, its peoples, and the energies that surround us. When I think this way, I accept that each experience of being rejected will make me a better person, better able to empathize and advise others, better able to understand humanity.
Joseph also acknowledges that there are greater forces at work in his life. When his brothers come to Egypt to seek food, they soon realize that the brother they betrayed now holds power over them. But Joseph assures them that they should not feel scared of what they did, for it was God’s plan to bring Joseph to Egypt so that he could prepare the nation for a coming famine. He tells them, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph sees that his life, and what happens to him, is not just about him—he is one thread in a complex web of destinies. This is the ultimate humility, to know that even our suffering is not just about ourselves. In fact, we can be grateful to those who are the source of rejection or pain, because those experiences lead to greater discoveries about how we can be better, and can teach us greater compassion for others.
This Hanukkah, may we learn from Joseph’s example, pursuing our dreams, forgiving others, and spreading our light with humility and love.