Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40)What You Think is a Mess, Might be Success

This week’s Parsha begins with the story of Joseph and his brothers. When we look at the first part of Joseph’s life, he appears to be someone who keeps failing. However, when we look more deeply into it, we will see a new perspective on how to define failure and success.
If an entrepreneur starts a business or someone else gets a job, (s)he believes (s)he has succeeded if (s)he accomplishes the business’s goals and makes money. Parents usually define success as having children who are educated, can support themselves, and hopefully get married and have their own family. If any of these things are missing, the parents say “where did we go wrong?” People define success or failure by whether or not they succeed or fail in achieving their personal goals.
Based on this definition, the figures in this week’s Parsha were largely unsuccessful. Jacob had good children but they began fighting bitterly and he believed that he was responsible for Joseph’s death because he had sent him on a dangerous mission. His eldest son, Reuven, failed in his effort to save Joseph. Jacob’s fourth son, Yehuda, was demoted by his brothers from his position because he failed to show leadership by not having mercy on Joseph. Who appears to be the biggest failure of all? Joseph. According to most commentaries, Joseph meant well in sharing his dreams with his brothers but his efforts failed and even caused his brothers to hate him (Genesis 37:8).  Joseph was sold into slavery and then, even when he worked hard and was an honest servant, he was falsely accused of inappropriate behavior with his master’s wife; he was thrown into prison. Even when he later became viceroy, he was completely alone, separated from his family, and surrounded by people with a different moral code and value system than that of the family of Abraham. If we define success as we did above, most of the people in the story were unsuccessful. However, when the Torah mentions Joseph, he is referred to as “a successful man”(ish matzliach) and that “whatever he did, G-d made him successful” (ibid. 39:2-3). How can the Torah call a man who caused sibling rivalry, was sold as a slave and eventually thrown into jail a “successful man?”
It seems that Torah has a different definition for success than we do.In the classic Messilas Yesharim [Path of the Just;Italy, 1738], the author gives a much different definition then our preconceived notions. In the first chapter, he mentions that we were put in this world to enjoy it. That means we were put in the world to enjoy the radiance of G-d’s Presence (Shechina) in this world but then the author takes an unexpected turn: “The Holy One therefore placed a person in a place [this world] where there are many things that distance him from G-d, i.e., physical desires… It turns out that he is truly placed in the midst of a fierce battle. Everything in this world, whether revealed good or the opposite, is a test for a person: poverty on one side and wealth on the other… serenity on one side and suffering on the other, to the point that one finds himself surrounded by war on all sides… if one is valiant and sees himself as a soldier and he is victorious in battle on all sides, then he will have perfected himself …”
If G-d wanted us to delight in His Presence, He should have placed us in a place of serenity and prosperity so that we would have the opportunity to fully embrace everything it takes to bind ourselves to G-dliness. Yet we are told the opposite. Success means connecting to G-d not where there are no obstacles, but precisely where one is surrounded by temptations, difficulties, tests, and failures in his physical endeavors. Success means that we remain true to our values even when we are in situations (‘war’) that challenge those values. It might be the temptation to cheat on a test, have a fling at the office, mislead an unsuspecting client, or any other of the temptations we live with daily. If success means achieving acclaim in one’s career and maintaining an impressive financial portfolio, then Harvey Weinstein would be considered a phenomenal success. However, if we can change our prototype for success and view it as understanding that we were put in this world to be in situations that challenge us that force us to declare how strongly we are attached to the values we espouse, then our entire worldview-and especially how we judge ourselves-would be different. Instead of falling into despondency and disappointment when things do not go as we had hoped, we will understand that our vision might not be what G-d had in mind for us.
Success means never letting our guard down, always being vigilant, and continually engaging in the battle to do the next right thing. It means letting go of the expectation that you will someday reach the point when you will be able to leave life’s challenges behind. That was the message G-d was telling Jacob when He blindsided him with the difficulty of Joseph. By that point in his life, Jacob had endured so many hardships and was simply looking to relax in peace and “retire” from the many battles in his life (Rashi on Genesis 37:1); but G-d had other plans.
G-d called Joseph a “successful man” (ish matzliach) because he was indeed the archetype of success. He remained engaged in battle to live his life according to his values, the values he had learned from his parents; he sought to do G-d’s will at all times, regardless of what was happening around him. He did not focus on whether his efforts yielded success or failure in the moment, but rather to remain loyal to who he was and what he represented.
It is natural for people to seek rest and enjoy serenity and it is obviously appropriate from time to time. But when we are knocked off balance by having a special needs child, an unexpected challenge in a marriage or family relationship, loss of job, or the other vicissitudes of life one encounters, we should take a moment to realize that success means recognizing that rest isn’t the goal of life, remaining in the battle and getting up after failure is. It might not sound too pleasant but that is why we have been placed in this world; anyone who was able to remain true to himself or herself amidst severe challenges, knows that pleasure because it resulted from facing the world, not living in a world of delusion.
This explains why, on Chanukah, we thank the Almighty “for the miracles, and for the wonders, for the salvations, and for the wars.”  Why do we thank G-d for the wars? Would it not have been better if we had been saved without the need to fight wars? We see from this prayer that wars have purpose and the battles we fight every day are what give our lives meaning and purpose. If we had serenity without challenges and daily battles, our lives would be meaningless. That would-be failure.
Our struggles are sometimes so difficult. But regardless of how we fare in those battles, in our professions, or with our children, we are successful if we stay engaged in fighting those battles, which are a crucial part of our daily lives.
May each of us merit success in never retiring from active engagement with the battles of life and appreciate the success we achieve every day.
Good Shabbos and Chanukah Samayach (Happy Chanukah)
(Based on an address given by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger)