Dangerous Spiritual Success (Vayeshev)
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. -Bill Gates
The Torah builds up and then describes a frightening scene of brotherly hatred. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. To compound the insult to Jacob’s other children, Joseph describes to them, not one, but two dreams that hint at his eventual leadership of all his brothers. Later, when Jacob sends Joseph to check on the wellbeing of the brothers and their sheep, the brothers plot to kill Joseph as he approaches them.
At the last moment, instead of directly killing him, they throw him into an empty well. The Torah, which is typically thrifty in the use of extra words tells us that “the well was empty, it had no water.” It would seem obvious that if it’s empty, there wouldn’t be any water in it. Many commentaries expound on this seeming redundancy in the verse.
The Bat Ayin on Genesis 37:24 uses the verse as a springboard to discuss some of the ways we fool ourselves into unhealthy behavior, even, or especially, when we start off on the right path. He explains that our evil inclination will start off by having us consider all of our good traits and accomplishments, and that we should be proud of them. However, that is just the beginning of the insidious strategy. The second part is that our evil inclination, having achieved a feeling of pride for our legitimate traits and accomplishments, will then have us develop pride in things that we haven’t reached or achieved. This strategy is hinted at in the description of Joseph in the well. The first part, “the well was empty,” mirrors a person’s spiritual reality and the pride they feel in the success they’ve achieved so far. The second part, “it had no water,” is the delusion we have once we live too much off feelings of spiritual success.
The Bat Ayin suggests that the remedy is to return to a humbler approach, where though we can be happy about and celebrate our successes, we must realize that even our successes are thanks to God and are in His hands and therefore we should circumscribe any undue pride even in successes we’ve achieved.
May we have many successes to be humble about.
To the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for their significant fusion ignition breakthrough.