Ups and Downs: TorahCycle Vayigash

Vayigash 2013

Thanksgiving’s over. We’ve moved on to gifting. We live lives of great abundance. Like Jacob and Joseph united, and the Israelites given a fertile patch of Egypt to settle into, everything seems rosy. We can rub our satisfied tummies and embrace the season’s pleasures. Many holiday gatherings share gratitudes. With good reason. We live good lives. As Joy Harjo, the brilliant Native American poet, says so well: We are rich in this place of many horses.

Now’s a great time to open your heart a little wider and stash in some memories of your abundance. Inhale the last scents of autumn. Appreciate the warmth of hot cider and your family’s embrace. Share you blessings with those who have less. Because nothing lasts, no matter how much we might want it to.

What do you do when times are really good, beyond enjoying them and giving thanks?

You can’t store them up, the way expectant parents might want to stockpile hours of sleep. There’s no way to preserve happiness and contentment,, like you would tomatoes or peaches. No banking system for the good times, so you can draw upon them when the famines return.

Just as no one can predict earthquakes, tsunamis, or natural disasters, we can’t know what’s coming. Jacob’s family thinks they’ve landed in a good spot, not a dangerous one. No one imagines that today’s abundance is a precursor to slavery that will last hundreds of years. Or that the exodus, Judaism’s defining story, is many generations in the future.

Who could have predicted the Shoah, or other horrific genocides? Even after millennia of anti-Semitism, the assimilated Jews of Europe could not have imagined anything as broadly lethal as the Holocaust. The Inquisition had dispersed them centuries before. But even after centuries of legal discrimination and policies of progroms, the Shoah was impossible to conceptualize, let alone to understand. Who would want to?

I’m developing a Holocaust literature project. When I talk to people about it, they either say, Yes, I too read to witness, or recoil, saying, I can’t. It’s too hard.

We’ve all seen Normal Rockwell’s classic holiday scene: a happy family around the burgeoning table. Judaism’s correlate is the Seder. Everything we could possibly want (except leavened bread). We retell the story that begins now: from safety to slavery to rescue, and then the long road to freedom. That, and the first bite of matzo, reminds us we’ve been here before. One more circle around the sun, and we’re still here. We survived slavery and concentration camps. Long road, hard road. Not all blessings and abundance.

When we’re comfortable, even complacent, what motivates us to work harder emotionally and spiritually than daily life requires? Why confront life’s harder aspects if we don’t have to? Isn’t giving thanks enough?

Struggle shouldn’t be a pre-condition to personal growth. But if you don’t do your homework in the good times, the bad ones will feel far worse. If you’ve only coasted on your happiness, instead of sharing your blessings with those who need them, you’ve missed a chance to develop the compassion and equanimity you’ll need later, when the wheel turns again for you. No one can know when that will be.

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