Gam zu l’tovah — even-this-is-for-the-good
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
The teaching gam zu l’tovah/even-this-is-for-the-good emphasizes that there are things in the world that are nistar/hidden and nigleh/revealed. Often, we are experiencing something in its nistar state, passing judgment on it, and then being either relieved or freaked out when it becomes nigleh and its true nature is apparent. Rather than trusting our own analysis, the mystical tradition offers us the technology of meeting everything exactly where it is by viewing life through the lens of gam zu l’tovah. Whether I’m dealing with the revealed state or the hidden state, it’s my practice to accept whatever is good in the situation. I can say, quite honestly, that this practice has saved my life on many occasions.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23) sets into motion the story of our fabulous patriarch Joseph. His life is a wild ride. He begins as a privileged daddy’s boy who is later betrayed by his jealous brothers who sell him into slavery. He becomes his master’s favorite and most trusted employee, only to be falsely accused of sexual harassment by his master’s wife—which lands him in prison where he becomes the warden’s favorite inmate. His skill of dream interpretation gets him out of prison and into Pharaoh’s palace where he becomes—you guessed it—the Pharaoh’s favorite… and it goes on and on like this until the final punch line, which might as well have been “gam zu l’tovah”.
I read this story year after year. I know how it ends. This foreknowledge makes it positively delightful to wade through the muck with Joseph, assured that everything is going to come out right in the end. And in a way, that foreknowledge is a spiritual impediment. Now I have to work at being empathetic to Joseph’s suffering, his grief, his loneliness, and his fear because I know he’s heading for a stupendously happy ending. But Joseph? He has no way of knowing if he is going to stay enslaved or imprisoned for the rest of his life. He has to live with the fact that his brothers hated him so much that they were willing to kill him. He doesn’t know if he will ever see his beloved father ever again. It’s a tragic and traumatic story…with a happy ending.
Actually, Joseph is an example of a particular kind of spiritual archetype who never gives up or gives in to his despair. In fact, it almost seems like he thrives on crisis. He finds himself in several actual pits, and then he has a project: how am I going to get out? That is a practical application of gam zu l’tovah. He figures out where his resources are, both internally and externally. He trusts his skills and seems to have endless faith in the goodness of others. He doesn’t apportion any energy to negativity, or fantasize about revenge, or bear any grudges.
If Joseph did lose his faith or his cool on occasion, the Torah doesn’t include those moments in the story. Which may be the point. I think it’s pretty unlikely that Joseph never felt rage, or hate, or despair, or at least frustration, given the serious tribulations he faced. So why would the Torah omit those moments from the story? Perhaps the tradition is trying to shine a light on just how powerful and transformative it is to practice finding a way forward, even when you land in a pit. Joseph had to constantly muster his compassion, patience, and stillness in order to see the hand holds he needed to raise himself up. He had to dedicate as much focus as he could to making minute-by-minute gains, tiny moves forward, and the slow but steady commitment to stay true to his nature, no matter what others did to him. Every assault was another opportunity to take a deep breath, and come through it saying, “Gam zu l’tovah”.
And that is what Shabbat is too—just another gal-darned growth opportunity—a time to find the good, even in a broken and breaking world. Time to look for beauty even in the bottom of a pit. Time to breathe, and feel your center, reach out a hand, and maybe even pull someone else up.
Vayeshev 2018 Genesis 37:1 – 40:23