Everything changes when you see challenges as blessings.
In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical equivalent. So each word has a number associated with it by adding up the value of the letters. This process reveals incredible insights, where words that don’t otherwise seem related, nevertheless are, because of their numerical equivalents. The word “Vayechi” means “and he lived.” This term refers to the last 17 years of Jacob’s life, which he spent living in Egypt reunited with his beloved son, Joseph.
When the Torah introduces us to Joseph, the first thing we learn about him is that he was 17 years old at the time he was sold into slavery. The numerical equivalent of the word “Vayechi” is “34,” which is 17 x 2. The Hebrew word for “good” is “tov,” and that has the numerical equivalent of “17.” Even if you are not a math geek, don’t switch off your brain – stay with me here.
From this we can easily infer that these two 17-year periods of Jacob’s life were considered “good,” and that those years, which he spent with Joseph, were in fact the “years of his life” when he felt most joyful and alive. Jacob died at age 147, however, so what was the quality of the rest of his life in between?
Complaining is a Killer
While Jacob had a lot of challenges, he didn’t corner the market on suffering. Yet, upon being presented to the Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asked Jacob why he looked so “old,” Jacob complained about his life. Each word of complaint (thirty-three in all) supposedly shortened his lifespan by a year! Perhaps Jacob was being punished for expressing “lack” instead of “abundance” in the face of being reunited with the son he long thought was dead. After all, when someone knocks you to the ground – but you find a huge diamond in the dirt – do you still complain about the shove?
In contrast, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who were, understandably, terrified to be in his presence, Joseph comforted them by saying that whatever their intention, it was God’s plan that the events unfolded exactly as they did – for this purpose, for this reason, for this moment. Therefore Joseph harbored no ill will; after all, when you don’t see yourself as a victim, it’s impossible to hold a grudge.
Seeing the Good
Says Viktor Frankl, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” While Jacob “came back to life” when he was reunited with Joseph, there is no sense that Jacob experienced that “aha” moment, that sense of coherence obtained in a moment of meaning that transforms suffering, and so, Jacob’s anguish all those prior years remained the same – meaningless suffering.
So how can we tap into being like Joseph? How can we open our eyes and see more “tov,” more “good” in our own lives, regardless of our challenges and the minor and major shoves in our lives? How can we shift the meaningless to the meaningful?
When you experience a state of coherence, where the stories of your life make sense, it creates lots of “ahas” over the events of your past. Whereas before you had mere stories that this and that happened, suddenly you start to see connections within the stories and between stories. You begin to see stories in a new light, and therefore, the stories become new stories.
You even wonder – how had I missed such meaning? How had I failed to connect the dots? How had I not seen the evolution, the blessings, the transformations – that could only have happened the way that they did, each thread weaving inexorably into the next? A new sense of divine benevolence and providence surfaces where before there had only been story – victim story, problem story, trauma story, etc. Eventually, we can learn to be the authors of our own life.
Coherence is a choice. We always see what we are looking for – always, and so the more “tov” you look for, the more you will see. Like those fun picture books we had as children, where we traced outlines following the numbers, and were delighted when a picture suddenly revealed itself, coherence is becoming aware how the dots connect to reveal an image we understand.
As Tal Ben Shahar, international lecturer on Positive Psychology, likes to quip: “Appreciate the good – and the good appreciates.” May we see all of the “17’s” around us – in whatever guise they may appear – and like the righteous Joseph, no matter what our challenges and hardships, may we nevertheless see the whole of our lives as “tov/good.”