We’ve all had chapters in our life that started out crappy. Not necessarily as badly as being sold into slavery, but bad choices of partner or job, health diagnoses we could not dodge, empty bank accounts with too many bills in the queue. These are contemporary problems and the Torah is an old manuscript. But the principles hold true: no matter how badly something begins, there’s a reason for it that, in the immediacy of our response, we don’t always discern, and possible good to follow. The proverbial lemonade from lemons.
The trick, as life has likely taught you, is not getting stuck in whining and self-blame. As a friend recently blogged, the best path to healing is genuine vulnerability and a good-sized helping of self-compassion.
This week’s reading includes reconciliation between Joseph and the brothers who sold him into slavery; then the migration of the whole clan to Egypt. In the short run, things look rosy. Everyone enjoys harmony as their fortunes shift. Joseph’s father Jacob is told HaShem will go down into Egypt with them, and will take them out again. Good now but lots and long bad to come before things will get good again: everyone will become enslaved.
The story of both slavery and leaving Egypt is among the most powerful organizing stories of Judaism. In Torah, the phrase I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt is more than so you owe me. It’s a reminder that any difficult situation is a cauldron, and that we’ll be changed in and by it, however bad things seem in the moment.
As good as something may look in the beginning, we’re incarnated to do our holy work: the work of soul growth. That means owning up to our past actions and choices, including some suffering (or at least discomfort) to harvest lessons from them, before we get liberated into the next phase of our beingness. It’s the darkness before the return of the light. No surprise these readings happen now.
The word in Hebrew for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means the narrow place. The place of constriction. The place we each find ourselves, and generally stay in far too long, before we’re ready for change. Most of us repeat the cycle over and over: the flush of joy and excitement when good happens; gradual disillusionment; growing awareness of the need for release; struggles for freedom; starting over.
You can count those cycles as lifetimes, or as multiple phases within this lifetime. But if you’re not learning by tromping over and over some of the same ground in your personal mitzrayim, you’re pretty unusual.
Exercise for the week: Think about what in your life has most excited you and then most disappointed you. It may be people, situations, ideas; the list is long and unique to you. Remember what your hopes were in the beginning, and what most frustrated, angered, or saddened you at the end. Hang onto the list. This story’s gonna get deeper.