Changing seasons: A testament to Joseph's character

Self-actualization is reached by Joseph's undergoing a series of tests and challenging circumstances.

Shlomit Ovadia

Judaism Forest in Israel (illustrative)
Forest in Israel (illustrative)

Leaves lay in crumpled masses, entrenched in rain water like soggy cereal. I scrambled over the uneven terrain comprised of rocks, fallen branches, and patches of wet land where the river and trail occasionally met. Although the encasing of the treetops created a misty darkness over my path, my heart felt light as I inhaled a concoction of sagebrush, milkweed, and oak, laced with the scent of recent rainfall.

As I continued to ascend up to the mountain’s tree line, the haze thickened, swallowing the view of the cliff drop-off, which I observed from the safety of the thin trail that snaked along the mountain’s edge. The fog seemed endless, only revealing the outlines of the nearest trees, which stood naked without their leaves, their branches puncturing the sky like daggers. A crow that was nestled on the edge of a branch flew away upon my arrival, the sky swallowing his shape as he moved farther and farther away into the abyss of gray. An eerie silence radiated through the air. Drops of mist from the clouds rested on the tips of branches like tiny little beads.  

Seasonal shifts like the one I observed that day in the forest can be juxtaposed with the natural changes a person experiences as they embark on the journey of self-exploration.
I had been on this trail before, but during the green and inviting encasement of summer. I marveled at the thought that it was possible to revisit the same nature paths and experience something new with each seasonal change. It’s akin to re-reading a book and discovering previously overlooked details, or studying the same chapters of the Torah only to learn something new you hadn’t noticed beforehand. So many secrets about life live within the confines of the forest, like little gems waiting to be discovered that take on a different significance for each person who uncovers them. Judaism is similar in the sense that it has the capacity to truly enrich a person’s life, if he or she is searching to do so. However, because its secrets are hidden behind the laws that govern nature, those who are not actively working to improve themselves may not see how life’s everyday occurrences that would otherwise seem meaningless and tedious become enlivened through their connection to a greater purpose.

Seasonal shifts like the one I observed that day in the forest can be juxtaposed with the natural changes a person experiences as they embark on the journey of self-exploration. This week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev follows Jacob’s beloved son Joseph on his journey from slavery and imprisonment to a successful career as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, unfolded as a bildungsroman story where self-actualization is reached by his undergoing a series of tests and challenging circumstances.

Joseph’s ability to adapt and transform through them shows us that there is no need to be afraid of re-visiting our values, sense of self, and understanding of the world whenever we find ourselves in new circumstances. In fact, we need to experience change to some degree in order to accomplish true personal growth and should not shy away from these challenges.

Joseph was given 4 tests by G-d—the first being an experience of success in a secular land, during which time he constantly showed gratitude to G-d through prayer and did not forsake his spiritual identity; the second was when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and he denied her advances; the third was how when imprisoned, Joseph still desired to help others both during and after his release; lastly, the fourth was when Joseph harbors no resentment upon being reunited with his brothers, telling them, “do not be sad,” for “it was to preserve life that G-d sent me [here].” 

Joseph approached every life experience with an inquisitiveness that allowed him to blossom in all scenarios, thereby growing closer to his own true self, and ultimately— G-d. This may explain why Joseph is referred to as “ha-tzadik,” or “the righteous one,” a name sparingly used when mentioning characters in the Torah. It goes to teach us that true righteousness can come about to anyone who is relentless in the pursuit of self-improvement— just as the health of a tree is determined by its ability to weather the earth’s changes and evolve with the recurring onset of every season.