Vayigash 2021: Spiritual Outlook or Spiritual Bypass?

How does it feel when someone says to you "Everything happens for a reason?" Joseph's story in the Torah shows us just how harmful this theology can be, in ways we may not expect.

In Pirkei Avot, an ancient source of Jewish wisdom, we receive a saying from Rabbi Akiva:

Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted,

And the world is judged with goodness;

And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works.

The story of Joseph illustrates these themes, and can be read as a warning to us to all. At the beginning of Joseph’s story, the narrator tells us that God was with Joseph - but only in moments when Joseph was at his most vulnerable: When he was sold down to Egypt, when he attained success in the powerful courtier Potiphar’s house, but ended up in prison - our narrator tells us that God was with Joseph, and God made Joseph successful.

As we reach the end of the Joseph story, this dynamic changes - we see Joseph say over and over again that God is acting through him, but never does the narrator tell us this. And, even earlier in the story, we are never shown God speaking directly to Joseph in the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke with God. So how could Joseph possibly know this to be true?

When we return to Rabbi Akiva’s saying, we can see within Joseph’s actions and words the belief that God controls the events of the world; that all is for good, even when Joseph himself was suffering. Who hasn’t tried to comfort themselves, or someone else, by saying something to the effect of “Everything happens for a reason?”

John Welwood, a famous psychotherapist, coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to encapsulate when this kind of belief structure becomes dangerous or harmful. He has said,

“Spiritual bypassing is a…tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks…. Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous…it leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.”

Ultimately, Rabbi Akiva’s statement complexifies the idea that “Everything happens for a reason,” making spiritual bypass a little more difficult from a Jewish point of view, by stating that God knows all, but we still have the responsibility of free choice; that goodness takes precedence in God’s judgment; that simply doing more good than bad deeds means that we are doing alright. It’s a comforting worldview; it adds a sense of purpose to suffering, which can provide our minds a sense of closure on previous trauma.

For instance: Had Joseph not been thrown into the pit and sold into slavery, and then wrongfully accused of sexual violence and thrown into prison, he never would have become vizier, and his brothers and family never would have been able to flee to Egypt to escape the famine, and we wouldn’t be here today being Jewish! So, everything happens for a reason, right?

We also know that earlier in the story Joseph famously angered his family through sharing his grandiose dreams which had his entire family bowing down to him. Can we not see an echo of this childish pomposity in his declaration of God having orchestrated all of these events? What if Joseph’s viewpoint provides, through spiritual bypass, premature closure? What if it is used to paste over unhealed wounds; to protect immature impulses afflicted upon him by his abuse?

Let us, for a moment, imagine having suffered the traumas and harms that Joseph suffered in his youth. Horrific betrayal by family; horrific betrayal by those with power over you; being forgotten in a prison cell by someone you have helped free. How would that affect your ability to trust people? How would that affect your care for others? How would it affect your outlook on what is most important in your life?

I can imagine this creating a person almost entirely focused on protecting themselves and consolidating power so that they can not be hurt again. When we combine this with his already displayed penchant towards self aggrandizement we see not only a hero of the Jewish people but also a man corrupted by power which had leached into his unresolved historical wounds and attached itself to the least palatable of his personality traits. His spiritual bypass opened him up to corruption.

This combination created a man who claims God is acting through him, and uses his power to turn all of his citizens into indentured servants, while giving his family free reign over the richest land in the country. That is, spiritual bypass, led him to further believe that all he attained was because God has marked us as special through our suffering. Any of us could fall into this trap, so, how do we know when it goes too far?

The problems arise when we begin to think we, ourselves, are especially chosen for these things due to previous suffering, and therefore all of our actions are equally gifts from God to the world.

As Joseph says to his brothers, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here…God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”

Joseph eventually uses this power to centralize all property and land under the pharaoh. In his telling, this act of turning an entire country to indentured servitude is, in fact, God’s plan. I would, though, bring back the first part of Rabbi Akiva’s statement - everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.

Which is to say, perhaps God foresaw this possibility, but it was not an inevitability - it was Joseph’s choice. And, if all is based on the preponderance of deeds, then Joseph’s deeds, which one could argue led to the enslavement of the Israelites centuries later, must be understood as the effects of his deeds. So how do we avoid falling into Joseph’s trap of spiritual bypass? Judaism itself has an excellent core practice to address this. The act of blessing. We have a traditional blessing formula familiar to most Jews, beginning with “Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam,” and then concluding by naming the thing we have encountered or experienced by the grace of God, usually in a poetic way that expands the importance of the thing. This is such an important practice, our sages teach, Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel. Which is to say that if we account our positive experiences to God, and acknowledge that we must in order to keep ourselves from spiritual bypass. When we acknowledge that the good things in our lives are granted us by a power outside us, and we are then responsible for making best use of those blessings, we sidestep the impulse to see within our own behaviors, to see within our own actions, spiritual significance that allows us to avoid confronting ourselves, or difficult truths of our past.

Joseph, unfortunately, didn’t have the benefit of the collective wisdom of our people to help guide him through his use of power, and due to effects of his overreach, influenced by his use of spiritual bypass to deal with the traumas of his past, our ancestors were condemned to hundreds of years of slavery. May we today, in our time, make sure to spend the time to reflect on our own sense of destiny, our own narratives of blessing and curses, and steer clear of the very human tendency for spiritual bypass.