Vayeshev: Freeing Ourselves From Our Prisons

by Rabbi Mark Fishman 

Rabbi Mark Fishman

A musmach of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary and an alumnus of Yeshivat Hamivtar, Rabbi Mark Fishman serves as the rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah Ahavat Shalom Nusach Hoari in Montreal, Canada.

תניא רבי אליעזר אומר בתשרי נברא העולם בתשרי נולדו אבות בתשרי מתו אבות בפסח נולד יצחק בראש השנה נפקדה שרה רחל וחנה בראש השנה יצא יוסף מבית האסורין

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Eliezer says: In Tishrei the world was created; in Tishrei the Patriarchs were born; in Tishrei the Patriarchs died; on Passover Isaac was born; on Rosh HaShana Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered by God and conceived; on Rosh HaShana Yosef came out from prison.  Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 10b

Fascinatingly, our sages saw monumental events taking place on Rosh Hashanah. If you look at this list from the above passage of the Talmud you might be struck by the last item on this list: Yosef being freed from his prison.

Of course, on one level it doesn’t really matter when Yosef was freed. He got out and from there began his monumental climb to the top. Yet if our sages are pointing out that his freedom from bondage took place on Rosh Hashanah then there must be a deeper level, a more fundamental point that we are being taught.

I believe that our sages are hinting at the fact that in some ways we can at times feel trapped. That the lives we have built and the realities we create can sometime be lackluster, perhaps we even feel stuck. Along comes Rosh Hashanah and reminds us that indeed, this day is a day for our freedom. The chance to be whoever we wish to be, the opportunity to go wherever we may wish to go, and become the people we truly long to be.

But how do we get there? How do we break out from the prison that may hold us back?  I think following Yosef’s life and legacy can point us in the right direction.

The first thing to do is dream. I know people who spend months planning a vacation but very little time planning a life. Imagine setting out on a journey without deciding first where exactly it is that you are going? We can travel at such fast speeds, we strive to put men on Mars (or at least Space X does), yet no matter how fast we journey through life, we will never reach our destination if we never decided where we wanted to be.

Dreams are the great theme of the book of Bereishit. So many people dream in the opening book of the Torah. Great leaders are dreamers. Moshe dreams of a land flowing with milk and honey, Yeshayahu dreams of a world at peace. Perhaps the greatest speech of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” Step one is to follow Yosef’s lead and dream a dream.

Step two has to be to enjoy and focus on what you are good at. Each of us has a passion – we need to follow it. Nothing else really matters – not money, fame or success – if we end up spending a lifetime doing things we don’t enjoy. No one on their deathbed, as the popular saying goes, ever said they wished they had spent more time in the office. Yet I recognise a number of people who, through being a workaholic push themselves to leave no opportunity unturned, only to have sacrificed their families and certainly their relationships with their children on the alter of ‘I had to work’. For those who can find their vocation in the things they are passionate about, they tend to be the type of people who spread joy. They become the type of people we like being around. They are the type of people who inspire us to be more like them.

The third step of moving out from our locked-in lives comes from the famed psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is one of the most widely read books of our time. Frankl writes: Don’t ask what you want from life. Ask what life wants from you. There is a well-known story about three men who spent their lives quarrying rocks. When asked what they were doing, one replied, “Breaking rocks.” The second said, “Earning a living.” The third said, “Building a cathedral.” We don’t need to ask which of the three had the most job satisfaction. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.

The fourth step is to remember the things that matter and to make time for them. If you have spent enough time figuring out what really matters, you will know this means family and friends. This also means carving out time for prayer, learning, community and volunteering. The love and generosity, the fun and the joy we can all experience is based on us permitting ourselves to carve out the time for such moments. At the heart of this idea is Shabbat and how stopping one day in seven can be our lifeline to the ‘real-world’ of what matters. Connecting with love, humour, joy, community – nothing can give us greater moments of bliss.

Finally, taking advantage of the moments life gives us. I fear that had Yosef been released from prison today he might have missed his chance due to updating his Instagram account. Instead of liking things in the virtual world, actually tell someone what you like about them. Instead of staring aimlessly into a screen, go out into the world and seize the moment. It was created especially for you. At this very moment, at this very time, you could be freed from your own prison.


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