Alone and not alone: a brief d'var Torah on Vayishlach
Seven stops

Joseph, Falling With Style


I place before you the assertion that Buzz Lightyear, the fictional toy astronaut, is relevant to this week's Torah portion. (This is a classical technique of Torah exploration: begin with an assertion or a verse from somewhere else in Torah, then relate a piece of the weekly Torah portion, then loop back around to the prooftext with which the argument began. I'm using Toy Story as my prooftext. Yes, I am the mother of a five-year-old. Roll with me here.)

At the beginning of this week's Torah portion we meet Joseph. Joseph is the youngest of many children. He receives special gifts from their father, like that multicolored tunic, and he knows that daddy loves him best. He seems to be the center of his own universe; no wonder he dreams of sheaves of wheat and then of stars in the sky bowing down to him. What surprises me is that he tells his brothers about his dreams. Can he really not have recognized how that would make them feel?

Joseph's story is the classic example of descent for the sake of ascent. He is thrown into a pit... which is a necessary precursor to being lifted out. He is taken down into Egypt... which is a necessary precursor to rising in Potiphar's employ. He is thrown down into the dungeons... which is a necessary precursor to being lifted up and becoming Pharaoh's chief vizier. In English we say "What goes up, must come down." But in this story, before we can rise, sometimes we first have to fall.

Nobody wants to do that. It's human nature not to want to fall. We speak of depression as a pit from which it is difficult to emerge. We speak of difficult life experiences as narrow places, a kind of personal Mitzrayim. We don't want to "fall ill." We don't want to fall down. Professional acclaim comes from going up the ladder, not down it! We surround ourselves with possessions, college degrees, and even children as though those could guarantee us a life of nothing but ups.

But every life contains some falls. Everyone descends, sometimes. Into sorrow; into difficult circumstance; into sickness; into something. What's interesting to me is how Joseph handles his series of descents. By the time he's been thrown into Pharaoh's dungeons, he could easily be bitter and resentful. Time and again life has thrown him curveballs. Surely this is not where he expected his journey to take him. He could be forgiven for railing against the unfairness of it all.

But he doesn't. Instead Torah tells us that "God was with him." Torah says that four times. I'm not sure whether God is with him because he's humble, or the other way around, but he's gained some humility along the way. When the cupbearer and the baker come to him in prison to ask him to interpret their dreams, he says "surely God can interpret!" He knows now that he can interpret dreams not because he's such a bright guy, but because he opens himself to the presence of God.

And God is with him, even when he falls down. For me, this year, that's the lesson of this week's parsha: that the Source of All Being is with us even when we fall. That sometimes it's through our falling that we become able to experience God's loving presence, as close to us as our own heartbeat. And that falling can be a precursor to rising -- can, in fact, spark a kind of rising even if our circumstances seem bleak. Maybe once we've been "down," we can more wholly appreciate being "up."

Like Buzz Lightyear, the toy who grew into a mensch when he recognized who he was, we have limitations. We can't keep our lives on a perpetual course of ascent. But if we can learn to embrace the journey, we can turn our falls into opportunities to soar. Buzz, like Joseph, is arguably pretty conceited when his story begins. But by the end of the film he relinquishes ego with the very words which had felt disparaging to him at the start of the film: "This isn't flying -- it's falling with style!"

What would it feel like to emulate Buzz and Joseph, to embrace "falling with style"? We can't keep ourselves from falling sometimes... but if we have faith in the journey, and learn to cushion our fall (whether with balls and trampolines, as Buzz does, or with spiritual practices to keep us resilient), maybe we can find gracefulness -- and even grace -- in the journey of life's perennial glide.