In this week’s Torah reading Joseph is at the peak of his power, both professionally and personally. He is the number two man in all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. He holds the fate of his brothers in his hand – brothers who had sold him into slavery many years ago. His older brother Judah approaches Joseph, pleading for their younger brother Benjamin; he tells Joseph “do not be angered by your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.”
Joseph has experienced many reversals of fortune in his life.
He started out as his father’s favorite – the son of his father’s “old age,” privileged, special.
The “wheel of fortune” turns – and Joseph is sold into slavery.
Another turn of the wheel, and Joseph is the head of his master Potiphar’s household – second only to Potiphar, given rule over and access to everything, except Potiphar’s wife. Potiphar’s wife wants to give herself to Joseph too – and Joseph refuses, resulting in the wheel of fortune turning again.
And Joseph is in jail.
After a few years, the wheel of fortune turns yet again, Joseph is released from prison and in short order is made #2 to Pharaoh, and Joseph’s on top of the world.
Joseph isn’t the only to experience ups and downs. The failures and successes of our very human ancestors in the Torah reflect reality: we all have times when we succeed, and times when we struggle. Times when it seems fortune is smiling on us, and times when it feels we are cursed. We get great jobs, we lose them. We get married, we get divorced. Our bank account is fuller, our bank account is emptier. We love, we lose loved ones. Almost no one has a life that’s either smooth sailing all the way with no loss, or disaster all the way with no gain.
Two thousand years ago the rabbis in the midrash and Talmud observed that there is a “wheel of fortune.” The midrash teaches
The world is like a fountain-wheel: the buckets ascend full and descend empty. Who’s rich today may not be so tomorrow.
The Talmud tells a story about a conversation between Rabbi Hiyya and his wife:
When a poor man comes, be quick to offer him bread, so that others may be quick to offer it to your children.
You curse them! she protested.
R. Ishmael taught “It is a wheel that revolves in the world.”
A Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim, teaches we should maintain our equanimity in the face of the turning of the wheel of fortune. He said a person should always have two pieces of paper in his pockets; on one is written “the world was created for my sake,” on the other “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” If you feel down, that the wheel of fortune is against you, remember that the world was created for your sake. If you feel too full of yourself, fortune is smiling on you, don’t get carried away, for this too shall pass. So remember you are “nothing but dust and ashes.”
The Joseph story is a reminder of the impermanence of one’s situation. Depending on one’s circumstances, we can find either comfort or caution from this reminder. If you are going through a difficult time, remember that the wheel of fortune turns and things will get better. If you are having good times, be a little circumspect, for that also does not usually last forever.