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Parashat Vayeishev 5784

Fortunately, Unfortunately

December 4, 2023
by Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

“A dream can follow you, it will not be denied,
Dreams can haunt your life until you them guide.”

~ from “Follow Your Dreams: Joseph’s Song” by Robin Anne Joseph

When I was child, I had a book called Fortunately by Remy Charlip. The way I remember it, a little boy goes on an adventure to a surprise party, unfortunately, suffering a series of mishaps along the way, but fortunately, bouncing back from them each time. The surprise party is fortunate; that the party is a thousand miles away is unfortunate. Fortunately, a friend loans the boy an airplane. Unfortunately, the airplane has engine trouble. Fortunately, there’s a parachute. Unfortunately, there’s a hole in the parachute. Fortunately…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of extreme ups and downs.

The story of Joseph has always made me think of this book. Fortunately, Joseph’s father loves him more than all his brothers. Unfortunately, his brothers hate him for that. Fortunately, Joseph has these amazing dreams involving things and people bowing down to him. Unfortunately, Joseph’s brothers hate him even more for these dreams. Fortunately, Joseph has a great job, reporting on his brothers. Unfortunately, his brothers can’t stand him or his dreams or his “reporting” and decide to throw him in a pit.

I could go on…being sold into slavery, but then the status of working for an Egyptian bigwig…the wife of said bigwig taking more than a passing interest in Joseph, which then gets Joseph thrown in jail. As the “fortunate” and “unfortunate” incidents reach a fevered pitch when Joseph encounters his brothers in Egypt, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and reveals what he perceives to be the deeper meaning of all that has transpired by telling them “do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen. 45:5) Or in other words: Unfortunately, my brothers, you behaved badly and sold me into slavery. But fortunately, G*d had a greater plan for me that led to me to be the savior of you and all of Egypt.

So, really, what I think Joseph is trying to say—and what the Torah is emphasizing—is that the “fortunately” could only have happened as a result of the “unfortunately” and both could only have happened as a result of G*d.

This week, in parashat Vayeishev, G*d’s heavy hand is exemplified in no better way than in Joseph’s search of his brothers who are supposed to be pasturing at Shechem. {Unfortunately, Joseph is not able to find his brothers at Shechem, but fortunately, a man finds him.} And from a completely benign query to find the brothers, the man redirects Joseph to Dothan where, indeed, his brothers can be found (Gen. 37:15-17). Is this fortunate? (Yea! He’ll find his brothers!) Unfortunate? (Oh, no! He’ll find his brothers!) Or is it neither? Midrash Tanhuma, Vayeishev 2:3 is quick to tell us that “the man referred to is none other than (the angel) Gabriel.” Fortunate or not, our sages believe that in this moment an act of G*d has occurred. This turn in the road (quite literally and figuratively) was actually orchestrated by G*d and therefore Joseph’s movements were pre-ordained.

{Unfortunately, many of Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him. Fortunately, Reuben tries to save him and Joseph is not killed after all.} When the brothers say to each other “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” (Gen. 37:19-20), the rabbis argue that this, too, is an act of G*d. Rashi points to R. Isaac in Tanhuma Yashan 1:9:13 who says that “And we shall see what comes of his dreams” was actually said not by the brothers, but by G*d. “The Holy Spirit breaks in upon their words concluding them by saying, ‘and we shall see what will become of his dreams’: we shall see whose words will be fulfilled — yours or mine. For it is impossible that they should have said, ‘and we shall see what will become of his dreams’, for as soon as they would kill him his dreams would be of no effect.” G*d not only intervenes but flexes some muscle; G*d has dreamed other plans for Joseph with which the brothers dare not interfere.

Joseph’s story tends to reads like a series of unfortunate—and fortunate—events. There are the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, sometimes with no easily discernible rhyme or reason. Sounds like Life. And yet, while the contours of Divine intervention may be more readily noticeable when looking in the rearview mirror, Joseph’s adventures remind us that at each step on life’s journey—fortunate or unfortunate—our dreams are ones which G*d is dreaming for us, too.
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.