The Oxford English dictionary has named “selfie” as the word of the year 2013. A selfie is a picture of yourself which you take via a cell phone.
Long before cell phones, people were infatuated with images of themselves. Rashi, in this week’s Torah portion, describes Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, as a lad sometimes occupied with fixing his hair.
When you pay attention to yourself, you have less mental energy to pay attention to the feelings of others. Joseph revealed his dreams to his brothers — dreams that hinted that he would some day rule over them.
The brothers’ jealousy led to Joseph being sold into slavery. Perhaps he should have shared his dreams of royalty only with his father.
This week’s Torah portion tells us that as a slave, Joseph was nevertheless put in charge of his master’s affairs. Despite, or perhaps because, of his personal woes, he was developing the ability to be responsible for others.
Imprisoned after being falsely accused of molesting his master’s wife, he must have felt abandoned. Despite his troubles, he became responsible for the other prisoners.
One day, he noticed that two prisoners appeared troubled, and inquired about it. He interpreted the disturbing dreams which they revealed to him.
After this incident, Pharaoh summoned Joseph to interpret the royal dreams. Pharaoh, deeply impressed, elevated Joseph to the position of viceroy.
What if Joseph, overwhelmed by his own grief, had ignored those two prisoners? He might never have left the dungeon.
Growing from Our Misfortunes
The Torah itself urges us to be love the stranger, because we too were strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. After experiencing misfortunes, we have the potential to notice others in distress and reach out to them.
Forty-fie years ago, at a youth convention in Chicago, I found myself in an elevator with no idea how to reach my destination. Being blind, I couldn’t see those descending with me. I called out “Is anybody going to services?”
One person was able, in the space of five seconds, to empathize with my uncomfortable situation. She offered to help. Sheryl and I are still friends today.
As you try to stand in another person’s shoes, you begin to notice something else. Your stereotypical beliefs about people, which you may not have realized were stereotypes, begin to disappear.
I don’t think a word like “otherie” will make it into the English language, let alone become the word of the year. Nevertheless, the world would be a better place if we could bring ourselves to picture the situations of others, rather than becoming entranced by photographs of ourselves.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org