02 Dec 2015

Vayesheb 5776: Faithful Dealings

Vayesheb 5776: Faithful Dealings

“Every person’s work, whether it be literature, music, pictures, architecture or anything else,
 is always a portrait of oneself.”
— Samuel Butler

There is a trend among today’s motivators and mentors encouraging us to do what we love. The late Steve Jobs put it this way in his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University:

You’ve got to find what you love… Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

There is value in a message that teaches us to become aware of our unique talents and to pursue a life that allows us to cultivate them. But there is something concerning about the idea that we can only do great work when we are in love with what we do. The reality is that life doesn’t always allow us the opportunity to do what we love.

The foundations of all great work are faithfulness and integrity. Work done out of these express our best selves in any endeavour – whether we love it or not. Integrity means that our identity is an integrated whole – that every element of our being is consistent with the person we wish to be. Faithfulness means acting truly and wholly without cheating or falling short. In understanding this we recognise that loving what we do is an advantage, but not essential.

The story of Yoseph is the Torah’s model for this lesson. Yoseph was a dreamer. He had goals for his life and he saw great possibilities before him. Yet, at the tender age of 17, life seemed to tear his dreams away from him. Yoseph was ruthlessly sold by his own brothers into slavery, forced down to Egypt and bought by Pharaoh’s master butcher. He went from the frying pan into the fire when his master’s wife framed him for a crime he didn’t commit sending him indefinitely to prison. At this point, for all Yoseph knew, his hopes and future were all but lost.

For at least 13 years, from ages 17 to 30, Yoseph lived a life of pain, suffering and sadness. Being sold into slavery alone would have caused many of us to give up hope. Yoseph did not love what he was doing. What, in the face of all that happened to him, would Yoseph have done if he learned that the only way to do great work was to do what he loved?

Fortunately, Yoseph knew another more fundamental lesson that is true both in privilege and in prison. He knew – even at his young age – that what truly matters in life is not what you do but how you do it. What makes or breaks a life is not what happens to you but how you choose to respond. It was that lesson that kept hope alive for him in his darkest hours and allowed him to maintain faith and integrity against all odds.

No matter what happened to him, positive or negative, Yoseph remained Yoseph. Whether he was a lowly prisoner or a powerful viceroy, it was all the same to him in that it would always be an expression of his whole and integrated self, and that, he would never compromise.

His commitment to integrity allowed all those who relied on him to do so confidently, knowing that Yoseph would never allow anything in his hands to lack his full effort.

We are told that:

[His master] left all he had in the hands of Yoseph not concerning himself with anything that was under Yoseph’s watch except for the bread that he fed him. (39:6)

And that:

The warden put in Yoseph’s hands all the prisoners that were in the prison; whatever had to be done there, it was [Yoseph] that did it. The prison warden did not need to see anything at all in [Yoseph’s] hands… (39:22-23)

Yoseph saw everything he did in his life as an expression of his very identity. Whether it is a circumstance as dire as imprisonment with no knowledge of when, or if, freedom will ever come, or it is the daily difficulties that try our happiness and joie de vivre there is never a reason not to be faithful and do great work. We always have a choice to invest our full selves in what we do or to withdraw and protest the circumstances because they are not as we would have them.

It is truly a blessing when life gives us the opportunity to do work that we love and that we are passionate about. But life does not always open such doors and we find ourselves all too often displeased with our status and without realistic ways to change it. When this is our lot we must remember that it is not only when we are doing what we love that we can genuinely express ourselves in the world. In all circumstances we have a choice to be faithful to our identity and act with integrity or to diminish ourselves in disdain and despair.

It is as Viktor Frankl powerfully put it in Man’s Search For Meaning (65-66):

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread… Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: … to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Even in the bleakest times, one’s identity is always present and can find faithful expression. Perhaps, this is why Jewish tradition has it[1] that the first and most important question one will be asked after living one’s life is not “Did you do what you loved?” but simply: “Did you deal faithfully?”

In wholesome, everyday deeds one’s soul shines. When we are true to ourselves and trustworthy in all of life’s journeys and stations we transform even our most ordinary tasks into acts of truth and splendour.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Shabbat, 31a