To say that 2020 was interesting is quite an understatement. We could certainly use other words, like unprecedented, unbelievable, unimaginable, and many more.
But there’s a word to describe 2020 that will bring happiness to us all—over. A recent headline read, “It’s time to break up with 2020.” I must wholeheartedly agree.
Yet, as we consider the past, and particularly the tests and trials that have certainly challenged us, a Chasidic dictum remind us of something so very important. It’s truly a favorite of mine—every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.
The Torah portions we read in Genesis about Joseph’s challenging life certainly give us a point of focus to see the descent/ascent relationship at work.
We know his story. It started with big dreams, literally. His were dreams of wheat sheaves and stars bowing before him, dreams of power, of rising status in the family. His brothers certainly didn’t care for his ambition, and they hatched the plan to throw him into a pit. He literally and figuratively descended. However, his downward trajectory wasn’t done. He “went down” to Egypt, sold as a slave. Just when it seemed the ascent might begin (Potiphar’s house wasn’t a bad place to be the guy in charge of things), he bottomed out in Pharaoh’s prison. He had truly descended to rock bottom.
This year has been filled with a lot of what I would describe as descents—pandemic, political strife, horrendous racial tension, violence, division on an unprecedented scale, and maybe most damaging, feelings of intense isolation for so many people. That is to say, it seems our world sunk lower into darkness this year. Right now, you might be saying, “Yeah, you’re right, and reading this blog isn’t helping me feel better!” Stick with me; it will end well.
I think everyone enters a new year (Hebrew and Gregorian) with hopes and dreams, sort of like Joseph. We have a picture of how it should be, we expect things will go a certain way, and we set out to do our part to realize our dreams. For many, it’s the most intentional part of the year as we resolve to be better, do more, behave differently, etc. Most of us probably began 2020 that way.
What happens when, pretty quickly and far beyond your control, you’re in the pit, or figuratively speaking, the whole world has gone down into Egypt, and you’re imprisoned by events you cannot change or influence? How does one deal with the feelings of despair and hopelessness that negativity and uncertainly can bring?
Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent. I think Joseph survived by this awareness. We can, too, regardless of where the descent takes us or what form it assumes.
The truth, of course, is that sometimes life stinks, and bad things happen. I’m not suggesting that we rely on catchphrases and empty clichés. When you’re down—way down—sometimes it’s not enough to hear “God has a plan” or “This test is making you better, just lean into it!” We don’t try to “positive-think” things away. There’s some value in recognizing the difficulty—when it’s bad, it’s bad. It’s okay to be frustrated, sad, and even angry at times. I imagine Joseph was.
However, in all of it, HaShem was (and still is) at work. Every descent was a necessary step toward fulfilling the plan of redemption for the family of Jacob that would be realized through Joseph. Each step down, none of which was easy for him, was instrumental in the future, meteoric rise to prominence that Joseph would experience. Here is a hard part—sometimes those descents that YOU experience will result in an ascent that will be for others. Wasn’t that the life story of our Master? Joseph and Jesus have such a beautiful connection in this, but it happens in our lives sometimes, too. The tough times we experience and emerge from can sometimes help others equally or more than they help us. It doesn’t quite seem fair, but I know if we asked Yosef and Yeshua, they would say the ascent made every descent worthwhile.
So as we make our break from the past year, let’s make sure to remember that as difficult as it was, and quite possibly still is, HaShem has accomplished some things that we cannot see yet from our lower vantage point. Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent. There are many reasons I could hypothesize about why things are the way they are or what God is going to do. But I don’t know. I don’t know what he’ll do, only THAT he’ll do it. And it will be good. Genesis 50:20 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to bring about this present result, to keep many people alive” (NASB). That’s Joseph talking to his brothers. He had it rough, apparently by their design, but Joseph knew better. God was in it.
For us, it was nine months of pure descent that has landed us down here, but with God’s help, let’s pray and believe that in 2021, there’s nowhere to go but up!