Vayeshev: Fostering Resilience

It helped him through the horrors of the Holocaust. It helped his children adapt to life in the newly established State of Israel and gave them the courage to fight heroically in its War of Independence. His grandchildren used it in their struggle to retain a religious lifestyle in the face of the challenges of modernity. His great-grandchild had anticipated using it at his bar mitzvah.

"It" was a pair of tefilin, of phylacteries. The original owner was able to take the tefilin with him when he fled the ghetto of the small town in Poland in which he was raised. He held fast to the tefilin wherever he found refuge and clung desperately to them in a series of Nazi labor camps. He even found a hiding place for them in Auschwitz and guarded them until he was finally liberated.

He bequeathed them to his sons, and his sons to their sons. He passed away a few short years ago, but on his deathbed, he charged his then nine-year-old great-grandson with the mission of putting on these tefilin at his bar mitzvah. The little boy promised that he would do so. But it was not to be.

Several weeks ago, a frightening outburst of wildfires decimated many forests and destroyed many homes in Israel. Some were attributable to the dire dry spell that Israel had been experiencing just then. Some were attributable to arson, fires kindled by our enemies. The home of the little boy's parents, in which the tefilin were placed for safekeeping, was destroyed in one of those fires. Lost along with the other contents of that humble home were the tefilin.

Tefilin are sacred objects, and like all such objects, the destruction is cause for sadness and even mourning. But this particular pair of tefilin served more than just a ritual function. They were the means by which a Holocaust survivor was able to survive. They enabled him to retain a measure of resilience in the face of unbelievable torture and the constant threat of instant death. When he passed them down to subsequent generations, he was providing them with more than a religious heirloom. He left them a heritage more valuable than gemstones. He left them a symbol that could serve them as a key to one of life's most precious treasures: the ability to remain resilient in the face of adversity.

In this sad instance, the symbol that helped foster resilience was a sacred object. Other objects that can and have served as such symbols are books, photographs, and coins. A measure of resilience can also be achieved through intangible symbols. Thus, anecdotes abound about melodies, prayers, poems, and even memories of acts of kindness that preserved the power of resilience in the face of trials and tribulations.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), we read the story of Joseph. Joseph is an example of a person who was subject to horrific trauma. Joseph was snatched from his position as a favorite son of a prestigious family and sold into slavery. He was delivered to an alien environment and imprisoned there. How did he remain sane, let alone resilient? What enabled him to remain hopeful? What was the secret of his capacity for resilience?

An answer to this question has been suggested by one of the past generation’s most insightful spiritual masters, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, of blessed memory.

Reb Chaim began one of his famous discourses by focusing on a text that does not seem to provide the basis for a homiletic masterpiece. After Joseph's brothers cast him into the pit, we read, "Then they sat down to a meal. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt." (Genesis 37:25) The Midrash wonders about this cargo of fragrant spices and perfumes: "Desert Bedouins generally carry cargoes of hides, tar, and naphtha. Observe the favor that The Holy One, Blessed Be He did for Joseph. He made sure that in his journey into captivity, Joseph would be accompanied by fine fragrance and not by foul odor." (Yalkut Shimoni, 142)

Reb Chaim expresses astonishment. Here is a very young man about to descend into the depths of a decadent society. What lies ahead for him, at best, is a life of servitude, if not outright slavery. Could it possibly matter to him whether he was exposed to tar and naphtha or to delightful perfumes?

Reb Chaim answers that in moments of great darkness and despair, one requires some ray of hope, some small reminder of Divine Providence, some indication that all is not lost. For Joseph, that ray of hope came in the form of his memory of the pleasant fragrances that escorted him to his desperate circumstances. Isolated, wrongly accused of adultery, flung into a dungeon with criminals for company, he could yet take solace in the recollection of the fragrant spices. He could contemplate that the good Lord did not abandon him even in his journey into captivity, but rather sent him a sign of His grace in the form of "gum, balm, and ladanum."

This is all he needed to remain resilient. He could anticipate the words of one heroic Holocaust survivor who, when taunted by a Nazi guard who told him that God had abandoned him, responded: "Not totally, and not forever."

Reb Chaim helps us understand what fosters resilience. It is the ability to retain hope by feeling connected to either a significant object, such as the pair of tefilin, or a significant memory, akin to Joseph's recollection of the fragrances that surrounded him during the earliest days of his captivity.

There are two lessons here. One is to learn to cope with despair by recalling objects or memories to serve as links to a lost past and a hopeful future. The other lesson is to learn to give others symbols they may one day need in difficult times: gifts of a pair of tefilin, a photograph, an ornament, an encouraging smile, an embrace, a farewell kiss.

The weekly portion of Vayeishev usually precedes the holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates a military victory of the few against the mighty. While we express our gratitude to the Almighty for this victory with appropriate prayers, hallel vehoda’ah, the central symbol of Hanukkah is the Menorah.

In no way does the Menorah symbolize the wondrous military victory that restored our religious freedom. Rather, it recalls the miraculous event of a lamp with oil sufficient to burn for only one night, which lasted for eight.

Whereas the victory over our persecutors was the plot, the miracle of the oil was but a subplot.

If the victory was high drama, the oil was the Almighty’s way of giving us a warm embrace, an encouraging smile, a loving kiss.

It was His way of providing us with a simple but unforgettable image to foster our resilience.

We pray that during this Hanukkah, we will all be able to illuminate our private, communal, and national darkness by remembering the symbol of the Menorah, which is nothing less than a call to resilience in the face of challenge.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Hanukkah.