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If I Had Only Known – Parashat Vayigash

When I was sixteen my family moved from Santa Monica to Sacramento. I had just finished my first year of high school and had been selected to play drums with the SAMOHI jazz band in the Hollywood Bowl (which I did the night before we moved). I was certainly not looking forward to leaving behind all my friends and everything I had grown up with to move to a strange new place where I knew no one. But my dad had a new job, so move we did.

What I could never have known at the time, as I sat glumly in the back seat of my parents car on that long drive from LA to Sacramento and a new and unknown life, was that Sacramento would turn out to provide me with some of the greatest experiences of my life. Because I moved to Sacramento, I got very involved with the local synagogue youth group so I could meet new friends, and ended up being elected president, going to leadership institutes at Jewish camps in California and then nationally in New York, and started on the road that led me to attend the Hebrew Union College and become a rabbi.

Because I moved to Sacramento, I found a remarkable drum and percussion teacher through whom I got my first professional job as a drummer at age sixteen, and by age seventeen had been invited to join the percussion section of the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, where I soon became the youngest Principal Percussionist in its history. Because of that same relationship, I had the privilege of performing all over California on tour with Germany’s leading electronic composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and became involved with some of the leading electronic composers of America.

So I looked back on my experience of moving to Sacramento later in life, and I remember saying to myself “Ah ha, you see there was really a plan in my life, and I just didn’t know it at the time.”

This week’s Torah portion tells the exact same tale about Joseph and his experiences in Egypt. Of course in Joseph’s story his brothers are so jealous of him that they throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery to a band of passing Midianite traders. After a series of ups and downs he rises to become second in command of all Egypt and is responsible for saving the country and all the middle east from starvation during the great seven-year famine. As the Torah tells it, his brothers are forced to come to Egypt to seek food because the famine has hit Canaan so hard and end up standing in front of their brother (whom they don’t recognize of course) and pleading with him for their lives. When he can’t take the emotion that is welling up inside anymore, he finally reveals himself to them (to their great shock and fear), and in doing so tells them what human beings have so often said – “There was a purpose to what happened to me, and none of us knew it at the time.” In fact, he tells them that even though they thought they were doing him harm, it was really God who sent him ahead of them so that he could be the one to save their lives and the life of their father.

“Thus God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a momentous deliverance: And now – It was not you who sent me here, but God; He has made me father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt:” And in so saying, Joseph extended the hand of forgiveness to his brothers. But more than that, Joseph in this passage did what we humans probably do best. He took the otherwise random experiences of his life, and he created a sense of meaning and purpose out of them. All of us do that. We look back at our experiences with a kind of spiritual 20/20 hindsight, and we decide what those experiences mean.

I believe that Joseph is a beautiful model for us. Each of us has the chance over and over in our lives, to transcend difficult experiences of the past, to find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our relationships, struggles, triumphs and even tragedies. Perhaps that is the real lesson of this portion. That we are not trapped by the past. That we are not doomed to attach only one set of meanings to what happens to us and to the choices that we make. Take this week to look back over the past year – accept the challenge to find new meanings, forgive those who were the cause of petty hurts and injuries, and find a renewed sense of your own vision of who you are and why you are here in the first place.

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