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By Simon Jacobson
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

WYSINWYG?! Is that a typo? No it’s not. Read on.

Take this quick questionnaire:

Do you think you know where your life is headed?

Do you feel that your losses and disappointments in life give you good reason to be resigned?

Do you feel that the hurt in your life has dampened (or killed) your trust and hope in a brighter future?

Do you feel your childhood scars have left you for damaged goods?

Does fear and insecurity drive many of your decisions?

Do you feel that you will never find true love in your life?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this week’s Torah portion has an indispensable lesson for you that can change your entire perspective on your life. In truth, the lesson is equally relevant even if you answered no to these questions.

Item: A 17 year old boy is sold into slavery by his brothers.

Item: 13 years later he rises from slavery and prison to become viceroy of Egypt.

Item: Some 7 years later he turns Egypt into a superpower.

Item: 22 years from the time he was sold, he controls the destiny of his brothers and father, and for that matter, of much of the populated world!

From the brink of disaster Joseph emerges a king – “from out of prison he comes to reign, for even in his kingdom he was born poor” (Ecclesiastes 4:14).

From a tragedy of epic proportions salvation is born. Joseph being sold into slavery ends up saving lives – as Joseph tells his brothers: 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.

Not only this, but Joseph’s descent into the abyss lead Jacob and his entire family to Egypt (see Midrash Tanchuma Vayeishev 4. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 86:1. Cited and discussed in a previous article) where their children would be enslaved, then freed in the Exodus, only to receive the Torah at Sinai, followed by their journey into the Promised Land, building of the Holy Temples and all the rest of history.

Essentially, Joseph’s initial tragedy was the catalyst that brought the birth of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah – and all that follows Sinai: the birth of civilization as we know it today, which is based on the principles of the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general (as scholars have noted, see here and here), and ultimately the transformation of the entire universe in the days of Moshiach.

Who would have thought? Who would have known? When Joseph was brutally attacked by his brothers and almost killed, then sold to the Ishmaelite nomads -- who would have thought that it would lead to such great events? Who would have known that it would change the world forever for the better?

The lesson for us is both simple and profound: You and I do not know the script of our lives. Sometimes what appears as bad news for the moment (or more than a moment) can turn into the greatest blessing. And sometimes it’s the other way around.

How many opportunities have we missed in our lives because we are still the wounds of our past loss or disappointment?

I recall an e-mail that was circulating a while ago. It went like this:


Question 1: If you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis, would you recommend that she have an abortion?

Read the next question before looking at the answer for this one.

Question 2: It is time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts.

Here are the facts about the three leading candidates.

Candidate A - Associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two Mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

Candidate B - He was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

Candidate C - He is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife.

Which of these candidates would be your choice? Decide first, no peeking, then scroll down for the answer.

Candidate A is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Candidate B is Winston Churchill. Candidate C is Adolph Hitler.

And, by the way, the answer to the abortion question: If you said yes, you just killed Beethoven.

Pretty interesting isn't it? Makes a person think before jumping to conclusions.

Never be convinced that we know the destiny of events. Remember: Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic. 

In the same spirit, here’s an excerpt from an off-line blog I wrote in the pre-blog era. 

THE OJ FACTOR: Sometimes When You Win You Lose

They call it the OJ factor. That is: OJ as in OJ Simpson. Remember him? He clearly murdered his wife, yet he won his case and was acquitted on technicalities. Remember the jury jingle: “If the glove don’t fit, you gotta acquit.” Wonder why they didn’t turn it into a rap song…

He won, but… he lost. He isn’t sitting in a physical prison, yet he is locked in a psychological jail. A social pariah, OJ will never be trusted. He can play as many tennis games as he likes, but everyone knows that he is a cold-blooded murderer.

I haven’t followed his daily schedule. I don’t have a desire to. But I do not envy his haunted life. Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, every interaction must be affected by his ‘innocent’ guilt (or is it ‘guilty’ innocence). Perhaps that is what the Talmud means when it says that the wicked “even when they are alive they are dead.” The living dead.

Yes, he won. Legally, technically – and for some that may be all that matters. But… he lost. Big time. What will always be remembered for posterity? What will go down in the annals of history? Not his acquittal; his evasion of justice. How a guilty man got away with murder (literally).

A similar thing happens to many of us. We dedicate our lives to a just cause. We go through many battles fighting for our cause. And then a tyrant obsessed with conquest and control takes it all away. With his eye on the prize, he forgets about the lives he is trampling on, and is consumed with winning at all costs.

How many innocent people have suffered on way or another from this type of brutality? How many of us have had to encounter a person who knows how to manipulate the system, does not take no for an answer, fights to the bitter end, with a ‘no prisoners taken’ attitude, with sheer, unrelenting force and intimidation?

But… Even when it appears that the tyrant has won, in truth he lost. He may not know it yet consciously, thinking that all things will pass, and people will soon come to accept his travesty (as they usually accept everything and anything). But he will always be remembered – and feared – as someone who mugged an innocent family.

Yes, he may have won. But… he lost.

I always wondered what lesson we derive from the mockery of justice that we all witnessed just a few years ago in Brentwood, California. I was incensed as were so many others how someone so guilty could get away so clean. And I was ready to chalk it up to yet another ‘no justice in the world’ scenario.

But today, in retrospect, much can be learned from OJ about winning and losing. Perhaps there is justice after all, yet not always in the way we expect it.

Maybe that should give us some hope.

So many of us are consumed with winning. And if we are relentless enough we may even get what we want. We win. Yes, we win, we get what we want, but we may not get what we need.

What may be even worse is that some people first have to win to even discover that they really lost. They simply could not be humbled with a loss; their egos and self-righteous bravado attitude could not take losing. Their humility will come from victory. They first have to win (win in their eyes that is) to be able to become open and realize the truth, that they really lost.

Always remember, sometimes when you win you really lose.

And sometimes when you lose you really win.

So, next time you feel resigned that all seems is lost, if you are haunted by your scars, wounds and previous disappointments in life, and feel that you don’t have much hope – remember the story of Joseph. A boy at the brink of death, sold into slavery, imprisoned in a depraved land – rises suddenly from the ashes, becomes king, sustains his family and the world, and changes the universe forever…

Indeed Joseph’s life captures the history of the Jewish people as a whole and of countless individual lives – the story of the moon: Just as it is about to disappear, it is reborn anew. Throughout the millennia the Jewish people faced the abyss time after time, Obituaries were written, and their extinction seemed inevitable. Yet, out of the darkness, unexpected, they experienced renewal.

History is our witness. But today we don’t need to rely only on past history. We have living witnesses, burning embers, of Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives from the ashes of the unprecedented genocide 60-70 years ago. These wretched souls, from destroyed families, are presiding over the great renaissance of Jewish life today – with unprecedented freedom and prosperity.

Who could have known? Who could have written such a bizarre script?

Now ask yourself: After hearing the story of Joseph – can any one of us claim that we know the true story of our lives? Can you argue that your life, no matter how much you suffered, offers no hope? Are you going to insists that you have it all figured out, ready to write off new possibilities that you may have not expected?

How much energy are we expending in fear, insecurity and all our haunted nightmares based on our limited perceptions of our life experiences?

Even if bad things may have happened to you, you don’t want to perpetuate its effects by living up to your own self-fulfilling doomed prophesy. None of us can afford to.

To get Jacob and his family to Egypt why did G-d create such a convoluted series of events, pitting brother against brother, causing so much anguish to Joseph, Jacob and all the family?

Perhaps to teach us the lesson of the mystery of life: Even when things seem all lost, greatness emerges.

Our responsibility is to take the lesson to heart and see it through.

Now decode the title of this article:

WYSISNWYG = What you see is never what you get.


Posted on January 6, 2006
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