Even the most random events hold meaning for our lives

Genesis 44:18-47:27
Ezekiel 37:15-28

A memorable Chinese story tells of a poor boy who received an unexpected gift of a horse. The boy was thrilled with his good fortune, and ran to his father to tell him. But the father said “Be careful my son, for what at first appears to be a blessing may turn out to be a curse.”

Soon afterwards, the boy, riding his horse in the forest, took a bad fall and broke his leg. His father found him weeping, and cautioned him again: “Do not be sad, my son. What seems at first to be a curse may in time prove to be a blessing.”

Some days later the king’s troops came to the village to conscript young men into the army. Because of his broken leg, the boy was not called into service. The father counseled him once again: “Do not give vent, my son, neither to joy nor to sorrow, for what appears to be a blessing may end up as a curse.”

Sure enough, when the war ended and the soldiers came home, each one was awarded his own piece of land — all but the boy who had not performed his military service. And so he was sent to work in the city as a common laborer.

The story is a lesson in equanimity. Since no one can predict the ultimate outcome of an event, it’s best to accept life’s ups and downs with a tranquil spirit.

Our Torah portion for this week makes a fitting companion to this story, for it, too, is a tale of continuous reversals, centering on a young hero whose fate seems an unending series of ups and downs. The last few chapters of Genesis tell the story of Joseph — his journey from favorite son to despised brother, from his pampered childhood to the darkness of the pit; from captivity and slavery to master of Potiphar’s house; from prison to the pinnacle of power in the court of Pharaoh.

For Joseph, as for the hero of our Chinese story, good fortune rolls over into bad and then back again, mimicking the unpredictable nature of our own lives. But there’s one additional dimension to the biblical story. For Joseph, the reversals in his life are not mere accidents of fortune.

“Do not grieve,” he says to his brothers in the climactic scene of this week’s portion. “Do not feel guilty that you sold me into slavery in Egypt. For it was to save life that God sent me here, so that I might be a source of sustenance to my brothers in time of famine.”

For the Torah, life is not a meaningless string of ups and downs. There is a shaping hand behind the scenes; there is purpose and coherence to the seemingly arbitrary events we experience. Though we may not be able to discern it, God’s master plan creates the pattern of our lives. All things — all joys and sorrows — unfold according to that grand design.

But trust in God’s guiding hand does not lead Joseph to passivity or fatalism. Nor is serenity in the face of life’s vicissitudes the lesson of Torah. Torah is not about detachment; it is about caring passionately, and striving to make things better. What, then, can we learn from the remarkable saga of Joseph?

It’s a lesson that comes hard to us these days: the lesson of humility. Our vision is limited, our perceptions imperfect, our perspective on the universe restricted to the tiny segment of life we experience between birth and death. While we’re in the thick of things, we may see only absurdity — sometimes it’s only in retrospect that we discern purpose and plot in the seemingly random events of our lives.

Writes storyteller Joel ben Izzy in

“The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness”:

“I still believe that things in this world do, indeed, happen for a reason. But sometimes that reason comes only after they happen. It is not a reason we find, but one we carve, sculpted from our own pain and loss, bound together with love and compassion. As hard as we may search, we can only see it when we stop to wonder, looking back to see where we’ve been and what we’ve learned.”

In the darkest days of winter, we are given the story of Joseph, bringing a message of hope: Despite all evidence to the contrary, there is meaning to our lives.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.