How to Be the Author of Your Life – Parshat Mikeitz

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“Our stories are the source of our suffering and the springboard to our liberation.”                                                                  – David Drake

 

Victim or Hero?

With the human psyche so wired for connection, it’s understandable that some inmates on death row will forego lengthy appeals and choose death over remaining indefinitely in solitary confinement.   About the only thing prisoners can do in interminable isolation is to go mad, and the damage is usually permanent.   Put them back in any social interaction, and they are just bat-crazy.

And then there are those movies – we’ve all seen them – where the world needs to be saved through a top-secret mission, and only one man is fit for the job, but he happens to have been railroaded in a cover-up, and shipped off to a prison that doesn’t exist, a captive in solitary confinement. In goes the secret government official, winding through a series of massive steel doors, to a dark subterranean hidey-hole, and with weapon drawn, warily faces the opening door. Inside, a shadowy figure emerges, hair and beard wildly feral and long, but sporting a six-pack that would make any gym rat jealous. Grinning with a sense of irony, he knows the balance of power has just shifted, and that he will have the upper hand in navigating whatever conversation is about to take place.

I love those movies! In a way, these plots resemble the story of Joseph. After twelve years in an Egyptian dungeon, the balance of power abruptly swung in Joseph’s favor as he was appointed Viceroy of Egypt on the spot. While the entire Joseph story is captivating, I am fascinated by pivotal moments where a story line can go either way. What is it, I wonder, that makes one person emerge from a painful prison experience bitter and hardened, or wild-eyed and incoherent, while another uses the moment to self-actualize and, by the way, masterfully save the entire ancient world?

There’s a Bigger Picture Here

Maybe it has to do with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and why they are here. In the dreams of his youth, Joseph fully understood that he was destined to be major player in a Divine plan. And so no matter what he experienced, he never lost sight of a vision that he trusted would unfold. That attitude requires taking the long–game view of life. And so Joseph knew when to be proactive and “make it happen,” and when to be surrendered and “let it happen.” To do this, however, one needs a high degree of self-regulation, a coming back to center, which allows our best selves to naturally show up and make optimal choices that create a positive outcome.   Even in prison.

Freedom Defined

We find a modern-day Joseph in the story of the famous refusenik, Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet labor camp, for the crime of wanting to immigrate to Israel.   After serving nine years, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released; and after immigrating to Israel, he founded a political party and became a member of the Israeli parliament. Sharansky recounts how he used to tell anti-Soviet jokes to his interrogators, where they had to exercise tremendous restraint to contain their laughter. “And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?’”

Sharansky defines freedom as the moment when he claimed his autonomy, when he realized that only he could humiliate himself, and only he could be ashamed of his actions. “If I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of God in which we are created — I am a free person.”

When we allow other people to define us and write our stories, we imprison ourselves. When we are on autopilot, we lose track of our vision, the who of who we are and why we are here.   On the other hand, when we trust that the narrative arc of our lives is part of the unfolding of a divine destiny, then we can bear suffering as part of the hero’s journey – even if there is no “happy ending.”

As Sharansky said, even if were to have died in that prison, he knows he would have died a free man.   Tormentors and oppressors are bit actors performing a role in the cosmic play of our lives. It is we, however, who can define our character and write our lines. And if we can navigate terminal illnesses, personal tragedy and heartbreak, and yet remain unbroken, and maintain our faith, then we are free.

How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything.

We don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a context, the context of relationship. Look at your life close to home. In every relationship we have, there are pivotal moments, where it can go either way.   Whether it is a family member, spouse, child, co-worker, neighbor, etc., whenever we get triggered, or whenever that hot button is making our blood start to boil, that is the exact instant, the pivotal moment when the story line we create in our head will drive one of two outcomes. Ask yourself: “How do I want this to go?” We can act with compassion or criticism, curiosity or control, unconditional love or judgment.  Instead of resisting life, let life be your teacher. You can be in prison – but that doesn’t mean you have to be anyone’s prisoner.

 

 

 

 

 

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Make A Choice For A Change

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“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”

                                                                                                      – Rick Warren

What goes around comes around. Until you make it stop, that is. Sitting on the steps of a courthouse appeared to be a homeless man. As my husband, who is a lawyer, passed him on his way into the building, the man called out, “Hey Rabbi, give me a blessing.” First, what made this man identify my husband as Jewish – much less a Rabbi? A hat covered his yarmulke. So, besides sporting a beard, what identified my husband as a Jew? And while my husband is a Torah teacher, how did this stranger discern that?

Was this a brilliant entrepreneurial strategy on the part of the homeless man? After all, he certainly got my husband’s attention.   Or was he a messenger from God? Could the message be something to the effect that while my husband looks and acts like a lawyer on the outside, who is he on the inside? The homeless man could have been saying, “When I look at you, I see the truth of who you are.” Turn that around, and the question for my husband was – when he looked at the homeless man, whom did he see?  

After my husband had related this incident to me, he seemed to have second thoughts about the encounter – or at least it was still nagging at the corners of his mind. Yes, he engaged with the man and even gave him a buck, but should he have done anything else? After all, my husband has traversed those courthouse steps thousands of times.   Why was that man there that day, saying those words?

“Don’t worry, honey,” I reassured him, “if this was an opportunity you missed but were meant to have, it will come around again. It may not be that homeless guy or any homeless guy. Lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Just be on the lookout to encounter the Divine when you least expect it.” After all, one of our favorite movies is Family Man, where the event that transforms Nicholas Cage’s life came in the form of an angel sticking up a 7-11.

We have all read those stories where someone doesn’t realize the import of a particular situation, makes a mistake, and is told the whole mission of his life, the entire reason for his incarnation was to do that one very thing – which he didn’t do. But unless that person vaporized on the spot, what would be the point of his continued existence? I hope life is more complicated than that, and that we are always given the opportunity to choose and to grow. While we may fail any given test, surely the Teacher doesn’t stop giving us pop quizzes.

In Mikeitz, the epic narratives center on Joseph’s dreams, his becoming the Viceroy of Egypt and encountering his brothers. But the story-line I like to track is the dialogue between Jacob and Yehuda regarding Jacob’s reluctance to let the brothers return to Egypt with Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. If you recall, Joseph (who has not revealed his identity to his brothers) retains one of the brothers, Shimon, as a captive until the brothers come back with Benjamin.   Hearing this directive, Jacob was not going to let Benjamin go, and was presumably willing to allow Shimon to remain detained in Egypt.   At one point Jacob doesn’t even call Shimon by name and instead, in an impersonal manner, refers to him as “your other brother.”

Thus, it was the same family dynamic all over again. Once again, Jacob was making it very clear who was the favored son. Benjamin was his youngest, the brother of Joseph and the only remaining son of his beloved wife, Rachel. Once again, Jacob was showing a demonstrated preference for Rachel and her children – over Leah and hers, and focusing on the youngest children over the elder ones.

This time, however, Yehuda did not allow jealousy and sibling rivalry to drive a poor choice. Instead, Yehuda took the opportunity to make a radical shift in the family drama, stepping up to take sole and personal responsibility to ensure Benjamin’s safe return, even if he had to stand against the very might of Egypt itself.   Same exam. New grade. Lesson learned. At last. And it changed the course of Jewish history.

We all make mistakes, but the point is not to keep making the same ones. There is an axiom: “What you resist persists.” The lessons are out there and will keep coming around over and over again, until we get the message, own our stuff, see our truth, and make a choice for a change.