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Parashat 12/07/2010

Parashat Vayigash

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

I shall go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up (46:4)

The saga of Yosef’s disappearance is coming to an end; the Egyptian exile is about to begin, benignly at first, then becoming the horror it became.  Before departing the Land of Israel, Ya’akov goes to Be’er Sheva and makes offerings to H”, who visits him in night visions (46:2).  H” promises to be with Ya’akov in his exile (46:4) and to restore him eventually to the Land of Israel.  And it is this promise which has sustained our forefathers and ourselves, as the Haggadah tells us.

What does it mean that Gd would “go down with Ya’akov”?  Surely Gd is everywhere; Gd is infinite and beyond time and space.  In his book Praying with Fire, R. Heshy Kleinman quotes some examples (see pp.126ff).  The great Kabbalist R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (known by the acronym of his name: Ramchal) indicates that what we are discussing is not Gd in Himself, but rather our relationship to the Omnipresent.  Ya’akov had such a strong relationship with Gd that even in exile the relationship was not weakened.  Gd’s loving protection was available to him, even in an environment that was by no means spiritually ideal.  Similarly, even though we are not on our ancestor Ya’akov’s level, either individually or perhaps even collectively, Gd maintains His special relationship with us and preserves us from destruction during the exile.  This is described as the “Shechinah [Gd’s immanent presence in the world] has gone into exile with Israel.”

Now obviously a relationship is a two-way street.  In order for our relationship to Gd to flourish, we must cultivate it.  We do so by being Jewish – a traditional Jewish life, focused as it is on prayer and Torah learning, provides a mechanism by which our awareness is constantly being focused on Gd and our relationship to Him.  A wise man once said, “That which we put our attention on grows stronger in our life.”  If we are constantly training ourselves to see everything in the world as manifesting Gd, then Gd’s presence will be felt more strongly.  As we are more and more connected to the infinite Source of life, negative influences have less and less power over us.

Now it is evident from our history over the past 2000 years that our experience in exile has had its ups and downs.  There have been times when we have been protected and have flourished, contributing mightily to our host culture and also developing our own particular modes of expression.  It seems though, that after a period of prosperity and good fortune, the tables turn, sometimes with frightening swiftness.  The Golden Age of Spain turned into the Inquisition, German Jewry went from a prosperous community that produced the likes of Einstein, to the Holocaust in the space of a couple of decades.  This is described as the Shechinah’s leaving one place and moving elsewhere.  What happens in these situations?

I think Ramchal‘s insight is quite pertinent here.  It has been the case, unfortunately, that when Jewish communities prosper, a certain laxity in observance enters.  As our traditional modes of speech and behavior go by the wayside, so does the opportunity constantly to reorient ourselves toward Gd.  As our attention wanders, our relationship suffers.  Anyone who has ever been married knows exactly how this works; perhaps this is why the relationship between Gd and Israel is often described in terms of marriage.  We become more and more entangled in our material success and forget the source of that success, indeed the source of the entire material creation, as we read at the very end of our parashah: And they acquired property in it [Egypt] – which can also be read homiletically as And they were grasped by it.  As the relationship crumbles, as we become more and more estranged from Gd, our lot worsens dramatically.  Gd doesn’t move away from us, but we as it were move away from Him.

Now ultimately this has a salutary effect on us.  We are forced to loosen our grip on the material world, which means conversely that the material world loosens its grip on us, and we are impelled to focus on what is real and eternal, and not what is ephemeral.  In particular we are forced to confront the fact that we are in exile, that we are not in that physical Land which is uniquely suited to our spiritual mission, and we are not connected to our Source in a spiritual sense either.

If it appears that this is what is happening in North America at the present, I would suggest that it is exactly what is happening in North America at present.  All of a sudden it seems that it is OK to bash Israel in the press, and for television to slander the Jewish people as a whole.  Things are said by the highest government officials, that if they were said about Muslims would provoke pious outrage.  Behavior on college campuses that would be prosecuted harshly if directed against blacks or gays, somehow doesn’t warrant much government attention when directed against Jews.  The list could go on and on.  Ultimately however, we are the ones responsible for these phenomena, because we are responsible for maintaining the close and loving relationship between ourselves and Gd.  Left to natural forces we would have been crushed long ago, as Toynbee points out.  The whole point of Jewish history is that we are, ultimately, not under the control of nature; we are guided by Gd for the purpose of sanctifying His name among all the peoples of the earth.  When we fulfill our mission according to the parameters Gd has given us, we are safe and prosperous.  When we let things slide, entropy creeps in and everything disintegrates, and the result is suffering.

Our Sages tell us that “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the awe of Heaven.”  Gd has His master plan, and eventually we will be redeemed and returned to our homeland, where we will live in Gd’s presence in an ideal society and an idyllic world.  The only question is how long it will take and how rough the journey will be.  The Prophet Isaiah tells us “I will hasten it in its time.”  Our Sages explain, if Israel merits, Gd will hasten the Redemption.  If not, it will come in its time, after much travail and many, many tears.  It is up to us to choose by our behavior which outcome we prefer.