Vayigash: 2009

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What Will the New Year Bring? A Prediction

2008 is hardly the worst year in history, but it sure feels like it reading the news, blogs, commentaries and analysis of the past year. People are tentative and fearful. The mood is generally miserable. The outlook grim.

2008’s economic meltdown – you can check out all the historic statistics on any popular website – is nowhere close to ending. A global recession, considered by many unprecedented, has suddenly erupted, with a domino effect continuing to ripple through the world. Mumbai has shaken us all up. The Middle East is at war again, or should I say, not at war again, but an ongoing battle that never seems to end. What is even more distressing is that Israel, perhaps for the first time in all of history, refuses to acknowledge that war has been declared against it, and to act accordingly and decisively, instead of just reacting to the latest missile attacks, second-guessing itself and moving forward with so much uncertainty. Read Israel Harel’s article in Haaretz, Israel Blinked First.

What will happen in the coming year? Will the new United States President change things, or will we have just more of the same? How many more foreclosures, bankruptcies, failed companies and financial institutions can we look forward to in 2009? What new revelations and corruptions will emerge? Will our economic systems fail completely or will they rebound? Are we headed toward better times or worse ones?

The questions are many. Answers few, if any.

Predicting what the new year will bring can seem quite presumptuous, if not outright folly. Yet, I will venture to do so anyway. No, I don’t have a crystal ball. I have something far better. Read on.

By looking back we can see ahead. The greatest guide for the future is the past. We cannot predict the coming year’s events. But we can learn from those before us who have seen and experienced far worse than we will ever see, and rose above it. What is the secret of the resilience and power of heroic people who endured and thrived despite great suffering?

One of the most remarkable and overlooked stories of history was the transcendent ability of Torah scholars to produce an enormous volume of literature despite the harshest circumstances surrounding them.

Throughout the Early and Middle Ages, with Jewish persecution at its heights, sages like Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeinu Tam, Rashbam, the Tosafists and so many others – literally hundreds of scholars – wrote thousands of pages, containing the most brilliant and eloquent commentary you will ever read. And no where in their writings will you find complaints, bitterness, depression or demoralization. Pogroms, the crusades, persecutions, expulsions, inquisitions were ravaging Europe. But as much as you analyze their words, you will not uncover an iota of the tragic and difficult events taking place around them!

Quite the contrary. Page after page is filled with inspiration, uplifting words, enormous strength and powerful insights.

Usually, you would expect to find some mention or reference in a book to the personal challenges of the author. Often authors bare their souls and their life traumas in their writings. But even when they don’t, with a bit of deconstruction and analysis, we can uncover the author’s personal traumas. Indeed, entire studies today are dedicated to show us how to recognize in an author’s words his abusive father and dysfunctional mother, every grievance against society can be seen in his pages.

When it comes to our Torah sages, you find none of the sort. No fear, no tentativeness, nothing in their writings reflects the most trying challenges of their times! And what is even more amazing is that this is not an isolated case. Literally every scholar and sage, from the time of Moses, through all the ages, left us with a legacy of writings that reflect a higher world, not at all scarred or touched by the horrible events of the world below.

Where did they have the composure, the presence of mind, to focus and produce such clarity? How were they able to not be overcome by doubts and fears for themselves and their families welfare?

Take Joseph in this week’s Torah portion: Despite his travails – sold by his own brothers into slaver, 22 years away from his beloved father, orphaned from his mother Rachel – you would think that he would have retained some bitterness. In fact, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, instead of fury and revenge, despite his great suffering, Joseph ends up calming his mortified brothers: “Do not feel guilty,” he tells them, “for it is not you who sent me here, but G-d,” in order to save lives! (See this article).

Simply remarkable. A powerful lesson for all history.

Where did Joseph find such strength of character, such power, to not allow his circumstances to shape his life, and instead he shaped his circumstances?

Was Joseph – and all the Middle Age sages – out of touch? Hardly. They were keenly aware and sensitive to the welfare of their own children. Yet, they still were able to rise above the fray.

How?

The answer lies in a powerful expression: “az men iz tzugebunden oiben, falt men nischt unten.” When you are bound above, you don’t fall below.

This is the secret of transcendence: the ability to not be defined by the events around us; the recognition that we are products of our own perceptions, and we write the script of our own destinies.

Worship man-made devices below, and your life will be determined by your attitude. Connect to the sublime above, and you will be able to rise above the immediate events and move forward with fortitude and optimism.

If you feel that mortals – or money – control the forces of your life, then you have delivered your own verdict: You will be subject to these forces, with all their unpredictability. If however, like Joseph, you recognize that the circumstances of your life are driven by a higher hand, and nothing, absolutely nothing that humans do can control your destiny, then you have freed yourself from the behavior of others, and can ride through the challenges and even discover how they have empowered you to “save lives.”

The very question – “what will be?” “what will happen?” – is our undoing. If you feel that things “happen” to you, or that you “find yourself” in a predicament or situation, then you have relinquished control, and surrendered your destiny to the “things” that you empower.

The secret to success in the new year is to not empower the weak forces that drive fear into our hearts. But to empower your own soul; to recognize that you have within yourself all the necessary strength to fulfill your life’s mission. To realize that things don’t happen to you; you make things happen. You don’t “find yourself” in situations; you place yourself in them.

We cannot control the events to come. But we can certainly control whether and how we will be influenced by them. Good ships are not those that can stop the storms or tame the waves; they are the ones that ride the swells, confident in their own ability to know when to thrust forward and when to slow down.

Not to minimize the challenges of our times, but we can hardly call 2008 the worst year in history. By looking back to far worse years we can learn how to proceed. And how much of our troubles are actually psychological? Imagine, if a critical mass would have a change of attitude, and learn from our predecessors how to “bind” ourselves to that which is “above.”

But for now, before we address the critical mass, let us look at ourselves.

No, we do not know what the new year will bring. But I will make confident prediction: Your attitude will define your year.

No matter what happens this year, whatever up and downs will be coming our way, your destiny will be shaped by your attitudes; you will experience exactly what you allow yourself to experience: You will either be dragged down by the gravitational pull of the earth that you worship, or you will be lifted on the wings of your soul that you believe in.

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Lynn Teichman
12 years ago

rabbi –

i read your emails each week –
never has one touched me as this one…

perhaps it is because while cooking for shabbat yesterday i kept telling myself to look at yosef…
he rises above all —
why? emunah…

Sholom Lipskar
12 years ago

Thanks. Excellent Analysis.

12 years ago

A perceptive and inspirational insight into the upcoming year, enriched by the profound wisdom of our ancestors.

Jarrow Rogovin
12 years ago

Rabbi,
We are in very deep trouble. As to economics, the staggering amount of debt will burden any recovery and failures will increase. Correctly, people will start to pay down bills and save but that wont put money into circulation. The only thing that can really help spur the economy is energy independence, particularly liquid transportation fuels in the form of ethanol- and methanol-based fuels. We are not moving very well in that direction — or any other in regard to energy, unfortunately.
The security situation will be much worse. Essentially, by the end of the year, Iran will have its first nuclear bomb whether or not they test it. They will have three to five by the end of 2010 and 2011 will see an industrial assembly line. All if they are not stopped.
Spiritual values are critical to help us get through this. Thank you for reminding us to keep the faith and to look to examples like the story of Joseph with its many important lessons.
Bshalom,
Jarrow L. Rogovin
Los Angeles

Rabbi Falik Schtroks
12 years ago

This was really good. I plan to share it in shul.

Rabbi Falik Schtroks

Susan Roseman
12 years ago

Connect to the Sublime above and you will be able to rise above the
immediate events and move forward with fortitude and optimism. Wonderfully expressed. Gives direction and shows spiritual leadership. Good job.

Patty Whalen
12 years ago

Rabbi: Thank you for your New Year Prediction..You are correct! May the Who of above bind us in love to transform the below where possible and the inside of each as ever necessary and full of hope because of that binding! Peace to you, dear Rabbi, and prayer with and for all that is good…New Orleans Puma…..Onward! Forward! and Upward!

Daniel
12 years ago

Thank you for such an inspiring piece.

Esty Sykora
12 years ago

Rabbi, How do I get in touch with the wings of my soul? Do I ask myself what I want to happen in my life?
Esty