Finding Meaning In Our Challenges

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Lonely tree in field with shape from heart

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

Victor Frankl

By Yisroel Schor

The Medrash tells us that Osnas, the daughter of Potiphar, who Yosef married was really the daughter of Dinah and Shechem. The way this came about is because the shevatim, believing that it was an embarrassment to the sons of Yakov to have a daughter from Shechem, took the newborn baby and placed her under a tree. To protect her, the shevatim put a necklace around her neck which explained that she was from the family of Yakov and anyone who takes care of her will be taken care of. A passerby noticed the baby, and Osnas eventually ended being adopted by Potiphar.

When Yosef became ruler in Egypt, all the girls came to get a glance at the very handsome new ruler. All the girls threw their jewelry into the carriage carrying Yosef including Osnas. Later that night when Yosef saw the necklace with the message written on it he found her made her  his wife.

What a fascinating Medrash! Here we have two people who were ostracized from their families and forced to navigate a culture foreign to their own and these two misfits become the ruling couple of one of the largest civilizations in history. How is this possible?

Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, discusses how suffering in life is inevitable but how we choose to perceive the suffering is in our hands. Having survived the Holocaust, he talks about how in the concentration camps some people became animals and would fight for every piece of bread while others would give away their last piece of bread to help someone else. He noticed that some people gave up on their will to live while others fought with all their strength to come out alive and pondered what could be the cause for these different reactions.

It became clear to Dr. Frankl that those who held onto their humanity and were able to find meaning even in the darkest place of hell were the ones who survived while those that gave up ended up dying. Based on this the esteemed professor created a new form of therapy called logotherapy. The therapy is based on the idea that in order to make it through the world we have to find meaning and purpose in our lives. To illustrate this, he tells a great story:

An older gentleman came to him for help. His wife had died the year before, and this man could not get over the loss. Dr. Frankl asked the man what would have happened had his death preceded his wife’s. The man said that it would have been horrible since they were married for 50 years and were completely dependent on each other and she would not have been able to move on. Victor Frankel turned to the man and exclaimed, “Look how much suffering you saved your wife from!” The man got up, shook his hand and walked out.

Dr. Frankl explained that what the man needed was to find the purpose and meaning in his suffering. What differentiates childbirth from an illness is that one ends with the great gift of a child while with the other we don’t see the purpose in it. Finding meaning transcends suffering.

Yosef Hatzadik went through tremendous hardships. Between being completely abandoned by his brothers, getting sold into slavery and ending up in prison, his suffering was more than most of us can bear. Yet, instead of being portrayed as a bitter person, we find that he was always upbeat. The Torah tells us that while in prison Yosef saw that the baker and butler looked depressed and he asked them why they looked sad. Most people in prison don’t need a reason to be sad. Yet to Yosef Hatzaddik being sad was an anomaly.

Similarly, the Gemara in Brachos says that R’ Yochanan would sit by the sharei tveila for others to contemplate his beauty. When asked why he wasn’t worried about ayin hara he said that he descends from Yosef and anyone who comes from Yosef does not have to worry about ayin hara. The meforshim explain that this is because the midda of Yosef was ayin tova. He was able to see the positive in everything and it was this trait that helped him overcome his struggles and brought him to great heights.

How is this possible? Why do some people fall apart when hardships happen to them while others use it as an opportunity for growth? How does one find meaning in life when they are going through a challenging time and it seems like it’s out of their own control?

The seforim contrast the relationship between a husband and wife as opposed to a relationship between siblings. The relationship between a husband and wife are compared to fire while siblings are compared to water. Because siblings don’t get to choose each other their relationship becomes similar to water, which calm and constant. However, there is no passion and fire for each other and the love is unconditional.

When it comes to a husband and wife, there is fire. There is passion, and it is completely conditional. I marry someone for a reason, and once that reason is not there, I may not love them anymore. Love which is unconditional is forever, but there is no passion whereas love which is conditional is passionate.

What separates the two is the choice. When I chose to be with someone my act of choosing generates meaning in my relationship and that creates passion.

Similarly in life, when obstacles come our way it is the ability to choose how we perceive it that is the key to unlocking the gift of empowerment. Are we just victims of circumstance or is there a plan and purpose to why I am here? When Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he told them that they had not sent him here, but rather he was a messenger from Hashem to prepare them for galus. This is amazing; Yosef understood that his shlichus was to prepare for them, the very people who sold him. Yosef saw everything through the prism of empowerment. I am not a victim, I am messenger of God; there is a purpose and a meaning to why I am here. He saw meaning and purpose in all his suffering.

What separates the people that grow in challenging times from those that fall apart is how they perceive their pain. If we realize that we are never victims because we are always in the right place then not only will we not suffer we will also be passionate about what we do. Ultimately, we can all be like Yosef and see challenges as an opportunity, or we can choose to be victims. The choice is yours.

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