A rabbi whose name I’ve forgotten was taking a walk through the streets of Jerusalem. At one point, he stopped to observe a group of garbage men who were collecting that day’s trash. They all had a very clear and consistent system: each truck was staffed by two people—one person would be on the ground, running around picking up the garbage; and the other person would be on top of the truck, taking the garbage and throwing it into the truck. The rabbi watched for a little while, and he started to feel that the system was unfair: the person on the ground had to do so much more work than the person on top of the truck. But, as he was about to comment on it, something changed: the two people switched positions, and the person who had been on the top went down to street level and started picking up the trash, and the person who had been on the street moved to the top of the truck to toss it.
It turned out that every half hour the two people switched roles.
I love this story, and not only because it’s yet another reminder of Israeli ingenuity. I also think that it tells us so much about the story of Joseph. Remember that when we left him last week, he is in prison. He has asked the butler to remember him, but the butler, once freed, has completely forgotten Joseph. Joseph is the lowest of the low. But then, two years later, when Pharaoh dreams, the butler recalls the boy in the prison who could interpret dreams. And Joseph, in just a few lines of MI KEYTZ, is saved. Not only saved, but remade: he is cleaned up, he is given a haircut, new clothes, and a signet ring. He becomes a VICEROY, the second in command in Egypt, after Pharaoh. If you’ve been to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and seen the Egyptian rooms, you can probably imagine what Joseph looked like—so stylized and ornamented.
So, what does this story tell us? I think it tells us, like the story of the Israeli garbage collectors, that we should always remember that life is full of ups and downs. We do not always get what we want, and there are times when we get so much more than we expected. We may be planning our next step in life---a promotion at work, a new job, a home purchase, a retirement—and somehow things don’t work out the way we expected. Or we may be thinking that life is going to continue as we’d mapped it out—we are NOT expecting change—and somehow, unexpectedly, we are facing a new challenge that we weren’t prepared for. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves: into each life some rain must fall. Imagine what a movie would be like without ups and downs—just plain boring!
We can learn a lot about people, we can learn a lot about ourselves, when we look at how and WHETHER we change during these ups and downs that are so typical of a normal life. Do we become haughty when we are at the top of our game? Do we become demoralized when we don’t get what we wanted? Do we keep our faith when life treats us well, and curse God when we face difficult challenges? I think that Joseph matures, and he never forgets that God is with him, whether he is at the top of the garbage truck or on the street. This is surely a message for all of us, especially as we are about to enter the secular new year. 2021 has been a very tough year for many of us—on both a personal and a global level—but we look for moments of joy and peace even as we recognize that there is so much that we cannot control.
A Joyful and Light Chanukah to all!