Do you ever feel stuck in your life? Unable to get out of a rut?
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph is far more than stuck. Almost killed by his brothers, he is thrown into a pit, then sold into slavery, ends up in Egypt, then thrown into prison. For 13 years Joseph suffered until things miraculously turned around.
What was Joseph’s attitude all this time? He had every excuse to play the victim and feel sorry for himself. Wasn’t he, after all, trapped in a hopeless predicament? He had every reason to be furious and vengeful. Instead, Joseph, with his head high, takes it all and never forgets G-d and his father, Jacob. And when he finally reunites with his brothers 22 years later, he tells his shocked siblings:
You sold me to Egypt. But don’t worry or feel guilty…for G-d has sent me ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the area… G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to sustain you through great deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, master of his entire government and ruler of all Egypt.
Joseph did not feel stuck. He always knew, though he may not have seen it with his eyes, that “it is not you who sent me here, but G-d.”
Imagine: A 17-year old boy sold into slavery. 13 years later he rises from captivity to become viceroy of Egypt. Some 7 years later he turns Egypt into a superpower. 22 years from the time he was sold, he controls the destiny of his brothers and father, and for that matter, of the entire populated world!
Are you still feeling stuck?
* * *
I spent a weekend at a retreat in Running Springs, California. Nestled in the serene San Bernardino Mountains, with 200 beautiful people, we celebrated life together and its endless possibilities.
Mrs. Miriam Swerdlov, a compelling and engaging educator, with a good dash of humor, shared with me the following story: She once traveled with a group to a mid-winter convention in Detroit. Their return flight was delayed due to a snow storm. They called and notified the Rebbe that they were “stuck at the airport” waiting for the snow to subside. The Rebbe told his secretary to ask them what the word “stuck” means. No, not the literal translation; rather, the Rebbe had never heard that a person was stuck in any situation. We are never stuck in a place. There is a reason for being wherever we are.
As Divine providence would have it, in the same week I was privileged to meet first hand a person who, by all accounts would be considered “stuck,” and he found a “way” out.
A certain Rabbi bumps into me in a store, and asks if he recognizes me from somewhere. (If one can’t be “stuck” I guess “bump” is also not the right word). I didn’t recall, but he did. “I once came to consult with you about publishing my commentary on the Talmud in English,” he tells me. A 25-volume commentary at that. It’s not every day that you meet someone who has authored 25 volumes on the Talmud.
If that’s not enough, listen to this. “And what do you today,” I ask. “I head a school for young adults suffering from mental disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, bi-polar, Down syndrome and Asperger syndrome.”
The rabbi tells me that he himself has four mentally challenged children, and what motivated him to establish this special school was the Rebbe. Years ago the Rebbe had told him, “through ‘v’shenantem l’vonecho” you will merit ‘v’debarto bom.’” By educating your children in Torah you will be blessed that you and they will communicate – and connect – with each other.
The rabbi thus started the school, which now educates, according to the rabbi, 28 special students. In the twelve years since its founding, the school has produced eight students who have integrated into mainstream educational institutions, and four who have graduated and hold steady jobs.
“Were the Rebbe’s words fulfilled? Has the children’s education visibly improved their communication skills?”
“Let me share with you the following episode,” he tells me, “and you will judge for yourself whether there was a visible improvement in the children.”
“At the conclusion of one semester we celebrated the graduation of some of our students. Since some of our financial support comes from the USA, we felt it appropriate to organize a similar event in New York, for the supporters to witness with their own eyes the progress of the children they are helping educate.
“At the event, we made a Siyum haShas (conclusion of the Talmud), and I told my autistic son that he would be the next speaker. My son, for the record, had never spoken before in public. I introduced him, and here is what he said:
“Do you know what it says in the last Rashi of the entire Talmud? The Talmud concludes with the statement ‘whoever studies Torah laws every day is assured of life in the World to Come, for it says Halichos (the ways of the world) are his (Chabakuk 3:6). Do not read halichos but halachos (Torah laws).’ Explains Rashi that ‘halochos’ means ’mishne u’breisah, halocho l’moshe m’sinai” (different bodies of law).
“But there is another ‘halocho-halicho,’ another form of movement, which Rashi does not mention: The strides that my father took in establishing our school, and the great progress that the students have made from being locked in their ‘shells’ to reaching unimaginable heights…”
Based on the above, it seems appropriate that the description of the rabbi’s school should not be “for students with mental disorders,” but rather “special children,” not as euphemism, but to recognize the special strengths that their souls contain.
* * *
I wrote these words on Yud Tes Kislev, another great day of triumph – when one man, imprisoned by the Czar’s regime, was released from prison. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, recognized, just as Joseph did so many years earlier, that he was not “stuck;” his captivity was part of G-d’s higher plan. And indeed, his imprisonment and subsequent freedom – just as Joseph’s – became a permanent holiday, celebrating the advent of unprecedented revelations of spiritual wisdom, known as Chassidus, empowering us with the ability to transform our contemporary lives.