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Real Life Experiences

Warning! This week’s Torah reading contains sensitive material, and parts may not suited for children under 12.

One of the more remarkable features of the Torah is the way it teaches us valuable lessons. It does not present to us idealized figures of perfect people nor does it sugar coat events to make its main characters look good. This book was not written by the producers of “Father Knows Best,” “My Three Sons,” or “The Brady Bunch,” shows that many of us grew up with.

Rather the Torah presents to us real life situations of our forefathers and how they handled them, the good, the bad and the ugly. No portion of the Torah demonstrates this realistic view of our great people more than this week’s Torah reading, פרשת וישב. If this פרשה were to be made into a Hollywood movie today, it would no doubt carry a PG-13, Restricted, or even the NC-17 rating for its content, violence, adult themes, sexual situations, and perhaps even partial nudity.

From the vivid description provided by the script of the Torah, we follow the exploits of Jacob and his family on their rollercoaster ride through a series of formative events.  Most people think that our matriarchs and patriarchs led very simple and easy lives; after all, “they were with God and God was with them.” Such a simplistic notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Their lives were often fraught with personal danger, war, vandalism, assault and rape, sibling rivalry and family discord. These issues were on top of surmounting enormous inconveniences  in their daily physical lives: no air conditioning or electric appliances,  no way to keep your favorite beverage cold, no hot or cold running water or even access to a simple bathroom and shower. Any home today has more amenities than a palace of old. No one would trade places with someone living then.

The greatness of our matriarchs and patriarchs is taught to us in the Torah by seeing how, when they made mistakes, they picked themselves up and changed their behavior. By looking into themselves, not blaming others for what happened, they were able to harness those parts of their personalities that had led them in the wrong direction.

Such a change doesn’t happen overnight. The process of changing such deep seated feelings and behavior is itself painful. Parshat Vayeishev and the ensuing portions of the Torah span many years and vividly depict other formative events in the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs. Each recorded episode teaches us how Jacob, Joseph and his brothers all came to work out both their own internal issues and then their conflicts with each other.  Once they did, they could resume their main collective objective which was to build the nation of Israel.

This lesson is one of the most significant in all of Torah. We can relate and identify with these people the more we see their honest depiction by the Torah. They were first and foremost real human beings. They had then the same feelings, emotions, and desires as we have today. When we say “God was with them,” it does not mean God shielded them from the realities of life. Rather, it means they recognized that God structured the world in such a way that every situation of life is an opportunity for human development, improvement and perfection. Since it is the same universe now as it was then, it must be that we too are presented with very similar opportunities. “God is with us” today, in the same way, if we only take the time to study, reflect on our behaviors and then make the necessary adjustments in how we live.

The Torah is teaching us by example. If our patriarchs and matriarchs had an elevated relationship with God after going through all of their trials and tribulations, so can we. It holds them out to us precisely because they were real people with all the abilities, faults and foibles that we have dealing with real life issues.  They are us and we are them or else what is the use of these accounts recorded in the Torah?! Even an “X” rated experience can be an opportunity for human growth rather than for human failure. The outcome is in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach

Rabbi Kaplan