Today is my 56th birthday. Last year, on the occasion of that blessed milestone birthday, my husband threw a surprise Kiddush for me at our synagogue – a very lavish Kiddush. As I looked at the spread, and the expensive yahrzeit plaque my husband was also donating, I must confess my brain was going “ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching” and as I was estimating the cost of my “surprise”, I was torpedoing my own plan to surprise my husband with a lavish Kiddush on the occasion of our 18th anniversary – which would be happening a few weeks later. Seriously, there was no way I was going to put out that kind of money out again for another Kiddush so soon.
Realizing that I was not going to have the opportunity to say a few words at a public celebration of our anniversary, I decided to do it at my birthday Kiddush instead. So I got up, and spoke about our anniversary and the significance of the number “18” – which is “chai” – meaning “life” – which was especially significant in light of the fact that my husband had been so ill the year before, nearly dying on the night of our previous anniversary.
After I sat down, pumped up by emotions this brought on for me in reaching this milestone anniversary, my husband leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That was really beautiful my darling, so I hate to break it to you, but we’ve been married for 17 years – not 18.” Wow, my bad! I guess I was in such a rush to get to that magical holy number “18”, that I wanted to bypass “17”. The number “17” however, is an incredibly powerful number, in that it is the numerical equivalent to the Hebrew word, “tov”, which means “good”.
So it just goes to show – if you are not looking for the “good”, you can surely miss it! And so I made it a point this year – in my 17th year of marriage – to be on the lookout for “tov”, to always look for the “good”. And that happens to be one of the themes of this week’s Torah portion, “Vayehi”.
The word “Vayehi” means “and he lived”. This refers to the 17 years that Jacob lived after arriving in Egypt, where the last 17 years of Jacob’s life were spent with his beloved son, Joseph. The Baal HaTurim, a classic commentator of Torah, pointed out that the word “Vayehi”, has the numerical equivalent of “34”, which is “tov” times two. When the Torah introduces us to Joseph, the first thing we learn about him is that he was 17 years old.
And so, the first 17-year period that Jacob had his son, Joseph, before his brothers sold him into slavery, and the last 17 years of Jacob’s life when he was reunited with Joseph add up to “34” – the equivalent of “Vayehi” – “and he lived”. One could infer that only these two periods of Jacob’s life were considered “good”, that these were in fact the “years of his life”, when he felt most joyful and alive.
Ironically, despite the name, “Vayehi/and he lived”, it is in this Torah portion that Jacob, in fact, dies. This reminds me of the Torah portion “Chayei Sarah”, which means “the life of Sarah”, which is also ironically named, because it is the Torah portion which records her death. When the Torah records her 127-year lifespan in an unusual way: “one hundred years plus twenty years plus seven years”, we construe this to mean that every day of Sarah’s life was “good”. This is not a whitewashing of Sarah’s life. We are all familiar with the intense hardships and challenges Sarah endured. But it depends on how you see them.
Jacob certainly didn’t corner the market on suffering. Yet, when he was being presented to the Pharaoh by Joseph, and Pharaoh asked Jacob why he looked so old (which can happen living in the desert with no sunscreen), Jacob replied with words of complaint about the hardships of his life. Each word of complaint shortened his lifespan by a year. Perhaps Jacob was being punished for expressing “lack” instead of “abundance” in the face of being reunited with the son he long thought was dead.
When someone knocks you to the ground, but you find a huge diamond in the dirt, do you still complain about the shove?
In contrast, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who were, understandably, terrified to be in his presence, Joseph comforted them by saying that whatever their intention, it was God’s plan that it unfold exactly as it did – for this purpose, for this reason, for this moment. Therefore Joseph harbored no ill will; after all, when you don’t see yourself as a victim, it’s impossible to hold a grudge.
While Jacob “came back to life” when he was reunited with Joseph, there is no sense of that kind of sense of coherence, and accordingly, Jacob’s suffering all those prior years remained the same – meaningless suffering. So how can we open our eyes and see more “tov”, more “good” in our own lives, regardless of our challenges and all of the minor and major shoves in our lives?
Being mindful of coherence lately has given me great “ahas” over the events of my past. Whereas before I had mere stories that this and this and this happened…I have been seeing connections within the stories and between stories, seeing the stories in a new light and even seeing new stories. Now I wonder – how had I missed such meaning? How had I failed to connect the dots? How had I not seen the evolution, the blessings, the transformations – that could only have happened they way that they did, each thread weaving inexorably into the next? A new sense of divine benevolence and providence was surfacing where before there had only been story – victim story, problem story, trauma story, etc.
This past year, I thought I had solved a great theological dilemma for myself. Whether it was due to baggage, or cynicism, the “stories”, I could never believe or say, “It’s all good, everything is good, it will be good, etc”. When people would talk like that, I would think, “Are you kidding? Hey bliss ninny, do you hear the crazy words coming out of your mouth? Are you listening to the drivel you are mindlessly saying? There’s a lot of bad out there and I’m not going to call it anything but what it is. Happy dreams in la-la land.”
However – and this is a big however – I had decided that despite something being bad, really bad, there is nevertheless resilience and post-traumatic growth, and so I had come to believe that the truest thing I could believe and say is that while things do NOT happen for the best, nevertheless, some people are able to make the best of what happens, and in so doing, they can even become their best selves. This ideology was such a comfort I even named my coaching business, “Make The Best Of You”.
It’s a scary thought and much more scary to admit publically, but the more coherence I see, the more I can see myself turning into one of those “bliss ninnies”. My past sufferings are less and less based on victim and more and more based on victor. Everything is for this reason – this purpose – this moment.
Last week, my husband and I attended a Bar Mitzvah and there was a big Kiddush after services, and so we were coming back home very late. My husband was looking through the remaining coats on the rack and was getting very frustrated at not being able to find it. So I started to help with this search. “Is this your coat?” “No.” “Is this your coat?” “No.” “Is this your coat?” “No.” “Are you sure?” Yes – my coat is a Bill Blass coat.” We looked through the racks and other rooms where coats were stored. At this point, despite the cold, we decided we just had to leave. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why, but somehow I knew, really knew, that my husband’s missing coat was “good”. (Trust me, this is very new and weird mental territory for me.)
As we got close to home, I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk. My first thought was that it was a strange place for a homeless person to sit. As I got closer, however, I saw that her bloody hands were covering her face, which was gushing blood. She had just tripped, smashing her nose and mouth on the sidewalk, and she was sitting on the ground in shock. I ran down the block to a florist that was open, got towels and ice and an ambulance was called. As I waited the good 15 minutes that it took for the ambulance to arrive, I realized that she had fallen where the stores and restaurant were closed. Because of the cold, no one was out and about and not one person passed by that location for at least 15 minutes. And so I realized that had it not been for the man who took my husband’s coat, we would not have been there at that exact moment. Had the woman thanked me, I would have said, “Don’t thank me – thank the man who took my husband’s coat.” I felt so spiritually validated in having had seen that loss as “good”, not in the woman’s moment of need, but back when we left the synagogue.
Later that evening, we went back to synagogue for the “after party”. In contrast to the hundreds of men who had attended services, there were only a few dozen and I thought the odds were slim that the man who took my husband’s coat was here and had returned the coat. As soon as we walked in, I picked a coat off the rack and asked my husband, “Are you sure this is not your coat?” Immediately he shouted, “That’s my coat!” “Uh….this coat was here before and as matter of fact, I asked you at least 5 times whether it was you coat, and by the way darling, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not a Bill Blass. I guess you don’t own a Bill Blass – right?”
The “old me” would have seen this as just another example of my husband doing what husbands do – you know – not seeing the stuff that’s right in front of their faces. I would not have seen that God momentarily blinded my husband to his coat, even putting a different brand into his head, so that we would spend 15 minutes looking for it. I probably would not have linked it up to the woman on the sidewalk. But the “new me” looks for the “tov” the “good”, and since we always see what we look for – always – I am constantly aware of how the dots connect.
It works for the big things in life, as well as the little things. And it is not compartmentalized – see it one area of your life and soon you see it everywhere. Everything is the same but nothing is the same. Suddenly, it’s all good. In the beginning, the process of creation mystically caused the vessels of creation to shatter; yet God pronounced this shattered and broken world as “tov”, giving us the means to heal, fix and repair. Everything serves a purpose.
This is the Hebrew month of Teves. Every Hebrew month has a corresponding letter and the letter for Teves is “ayin” which means “eye”. This is the month in which we are to develop a good eye. One of my favorite phrases from Tal Ben Shahar is “Appreciate the good – and the good appreciates.” The more we develop a good eye, the more good we will see, and ultimately, like our mother Sarah, and the righteous Joseph, no matter what our challenges and hardships, we will not simply make the best of them, nor feel fully alive only in the absence of suffering, but we can see the whole of our lives as “tov” as “good”. May you see all of the “17’s” around you – in whatever guise they may appear.