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Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17) Conquering the “I Could Have Been” Attitude

Joseph’s ability as a dream interpreter becomes known to Pharaoh, who promotes him to Viceroy, the second most powerful position in Egypt. He gets married and has two children; the first is named Menasheh.
Joseph called the name of his firstborn Menasheh, for “G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.” (41:51)
Why would Joseph praise the Almighty for helping him forget his past? On the contrary, one would think that he would do everything in his power to remember his roots, his home and his family. Granted, there was much pain in his past but his value system and spiritual foundation had its roots in his parent’s home; why would he want to forget it?
The commentary Emek Davar gives a practical explanation. Joseph missed his father (Jacob), for whom he had an overwhelming love. Had the memories played an active role in his mind, they would have wreaked havoc on his ability to maintain a clear mind when running the country. Millions of people relied on Joseph, Egypt’s Viceroy, to implement, maintain, and manage a system that would provide food for them during the great famine. He did not let his feelings overpower his responsibility to those who had placed their trust in him. When Joseph finally had a son, he wanted to thank G-d for allowing him to “forget” his past because this helped him to carry out the yeomen’s work for which he was now tasked.
Joseph was given special attention by his father (Jacob) and seemed to be the heir apparent to transmit the teachings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As such, the plan was for him to remain in the family’s pristine spiritual environment because that would be necessary for Joseph to be able to learn and teach the ideas first brought into the world by Abraham and Sara; ideas that would eventually transform the world.
But G-d had other plans for Joseph, which became apparent when he was rescued from prison and stood before Pharaoh. He was meant to be the second in command of the world’s most powerful nation. He might have been raised to be a scholar, the trusted source for the wisdom of ethical Monotheism, but that was not his destiny, (it was his identity, and one he would never change or give up) This new physical reality would necessitate a withdrawal from his past, a past which demanded a life of isolation from the material focus of this world. Jacob’s aspirations for Joseph and the reality that G-d created for him did not coincide. When Joseph realized that G-d’s goals for him were not consistent with the way he was raised, he had no second thoughts. G-d needed him for a specific purpose. Therefore, he praised Him for allowing him to forget his past, so that it would not lay like a heavy stone on his heart. There were no “do you know what I could have been if I only…” or “I didn’t sign up for this” moments.
I have spoken to many people over the years who have the following narrative. “I could have been a really good parent if I didn’t have a child with special needs, who took all our energy.” “I could have had a great career if I would have had a spouse who wasn’t so emotionally fragile.” “I could have had a great marriage if my parents would have been role models instead of criticizing each other and the rest of us.” One obvious mistake these people are making is allowing their past to dictate their future. They have no present; just a painful past and an abysmal future. They have the ability to be happy but choose focus on something that can’t be changed. They might not realize they are making this choice, but it is a choice. But there’s another flaw in their thinking.
From an early age, we plan our lives. We will be successful in school, get into a good college, perhaps go to graduate school, have a well-paying and personally fulfilling career, get married, have kids, yada, yada, yada. But we forget that this world has a Creator, Who created you and has a plan for you. Who told you that you were put here to be a Mom or Dad with kids who are great athletes and show academic promise? Maybe G-d has something far greater for you. He believes in you and has given you an unusual dosage of inner strength to care for the special soul gifted to you; (s)he is special and needs special parents. Time and time again we are reminded that we can’t control the people and circumstances in our lives. Industries collapse, people lose job, people get sick, people have mental health issues and we need to lead life on life’s terms, not our terms. The same G-d that created DNA, gravitational pull, the respiratory system, the Milky Way, and took the Jewish nation out of Egypt, created you and your life situation. The more we rebel against it, the more miserable we are because life on the surface isn’t fair.
At times, a sees that G-d steering his or her life towards a new mission. It takes away leisuretime as well as time to pursue other meaningful endeavors. G-d, however, has selected him or her for another task; the sooner one embraces this paradigm shift and does what is asked of him or her without regret for “what I could have been,” the more peace of mind the person will have.
G-d views life differently than us. A deep mutual love existed between Joseph and his father; one can only imagine the mental anguish that must have plagued Joseph. It might have driven a lesser person to the point where he could not have functioned normally. “Why did things have to work out this way; why did have to be separated from my father and have to be involved with the day to day mundane affairs of a nation? I never wanted this, all I wanted to do was to sit at my father’s feet and soak up all the wisdom I could.” But Joseph understood that he had a function different than what he and his parents had planned for. He embraced it, but how could he detach thoughts of his past that would have made him less effective? He recognized that his ability to detach was a gift from G-d and he named his first son Menasheh (meaning, “G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household”) to recognize this gift. Joseph’s ability to find meaning in a life he didn’t sign up for is a lesson for us. He put aside his past so that he could address the present and build for the future. The gift of forgetfulness enabled him to do so. This episode of his life makes Joseph one of our great teachers.
[Sources:Breshis 41: 51;Emek Davar (Netziv);Taam V’Daas (Rav Moshe Sternbuch);Peninim al HaTorah (Rav A. Leib Scheinbaum)]

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Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center