The Grand Illusion

The Grand Illusion

Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

Everyone enjoys a good magician. They appear to do what seems completely impossible. But although they can entertain people for hours on end, the craft of a magician is based on illusion and misdirection. They draw our attention to one thing in order to distract us from another. If they want us to watch what one hand is doing, then the other hand is doing the real “magic.” If they point at an object, it’s generally misdirection. But we don’t mind this. In fact, we pay money to be misguided and have our point of view mislead.

The Scriptures are continually focused on altering our perspective of reality. We can choose to view things from the perspective of Hashem or from the perspective of Hasatan, the adversary. What we see all depends on what we are focused on. Are we focused on the good or the bad, the blessings or the difficulties? This week’s parashah is filled with many instances that can be interpreted based on one’s perspective of the situation. For instance, Joseph’s entire ordeal would have been horrible to most people and would certainly be cause for distress and complaining. But Joseph kept the proper perspective and saw everything as God’s plan being fulfilled in his life.

Although this truth of choosing to view things through spiritual eyes rather than fleshly eyes is found throughout the Torah, we usually only see hints of it. For instance, when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites, the Torah records that they were “bearing gum, balm, and myrrh” (Genesis 37:25). Why do we need to know what merchandise they were carrying? Don’t we just need to know what an awful situation it was for Joseph? But we are told these little details for a purpose. The Midrash relates that normally, these traders would have been carrying foul-smelling merchandise like animal skins and tar. Therefore, the Torah wants us to know that Hashem always cares for His own, even in the worst circumstances. There is always a silver lining to the clouds above us if we will but look diligently enough. Joseph is not only attentive to these minor details in his life, but entirely focused on them.

We see the opposite perspective when Jacob is shown the blood on Joseph’s garment and assumes the worse. In this moment Jacob filters his reality through his past of pain and suffering, including the loss of Joseph’s own mother. His perspective is that all is hopeless. He cannot do anything other than mourn deeply.

Again in this week’s reading, Judah perceives his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as a black widow, then a harlot, then an adulteress. But his perspective eventually changes and he realizes that she is not the enemy, but that she is acting even more righteously than he has done himself.

It seems, however, that Joseph is more perceptive than his entire family. Joseph could have very well felt that the LORD had abandoned him, as most would. But he sees the good in every situation. How did he do this? 

There is a famous, two-dimensional illustration called “Rubin’s Vase” that illustrates this point. At first glance, it simply looks like the silhouette of a vase. But if one looks at the space around the vase, rather than the vase itself, an image of two profiles facing one another appear on either side of the vase. The picture doesn’t need to change in order for a person to see the faces, only our perspective.

Joseph chose to look beyond the surface and see God’s other hand at work in the background. The Torah affirms the LORD's involvement in Joseph’s life on several occasions saying, “The LORD was with Joseph.” Joseph recognized this and maintained his joy in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. He could have easily given up if he didn’t keep his eye on what God was doing in the background. This is the grand illusion of life. Both blessing and curse are contained in the same events. It all depends on how we perceive them. Was it Hashem or Hasatan who did that? I guess it all depends on whose perspective we are seeing it from.