The Grand Illusion

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

Everyone enjoys a good magician. They appear to do what seems completely impossible. 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 misled.

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 differently based on one’s perspective of the situation. For instance, Joseph’s entire ordeal—being betrayed by his brothers, getting sold into slavery, being thrown into prison for a crime he didn’t commit, etc.—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 see only 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 was not only attentive but also entirely focused on these minor details in his life.

We see the opposite perspective when Jacob was shown the blood on Joseph’s garment and assumed the worst. At that moment, Jacob filtered his reality through his past experiences of pain and suffering, including the loss of Joseph’s own mother. His perspective was that of hopelessness. He could do nothing other than mourn deeply.

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

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

A famous, two-dimensional illustration called “Rubin’s Vase” 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 appears 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 does.

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” (Genesis 39:2). 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. Blessings and curses are contained in the same events. It all depends on how we perceive them. Was it Hashem or HaSatan who did that? It all depends on whose perspective we are seeing it from. What perspective do you usually have when faced with difficulty? What steps will you take to adopt Hashem's perspective on your life and situations?