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Parashat Miketz 5774 — 11/27/2013

Parashat Miketz 5774 — 11/27/2013

Then Pharaoh sent [messengers] and summoned Yosef, and they hurried him out of the dungeon. (Bereishis 41:14)

For everything there is a time. And when the designated time arrives, whether for good or for bad, Hashem does not delay by even a second. When the predetermined period that Yosef needed to be in prison came to an end, he was released immediately, without any delay, as it is written, And they hurried him out of the dungeon.So too, when the time for our Redemption arrives, and our nation’s exile must end and the Mashiach must come, Hakadosh Baruch Hu will not delay it even an instant. We will not need to endure one moment of exile more than is necessary. Rather, He will hurry us out of the dungeon of our exile and bring us back to our homeland – Eretz Yisrael. May it happen very soon!  (Chafetz Chaim)

I will hasten it [i.e. Redemption] in its time.  (Isaiah 60:22)

In his book Praying With Fire (page 50), R. Heshy Kleinman quotes Ramban (to Shemot 2:25) as saying that although the precise moment for the redemption from Egypt had arrived, the Jewish people still had to cry out in prayer before Hashem actually set the process in motion.  The Chafetz Chaim, on the other hand, appears to be saying that all that is needed is the fullness of time for the Redemption to come.  And Isaiah seems to encompass both views: the Sages ask, if Gd will hasten the Redemption, it won’t come in its time.  If it comes in its time, then obviously Gd hasn’t hastened it!  They explain: if Israel merits, the Redemption will be hastened.  If Israel doesn’t merit, it will come in its time.  How can we reconcile these different approaches?

In the spirit of “fools rush in,” I’d like to try approaching this question by considering what Redemption is and what it might mean to “merit” it.  Traditionally of course, we merit Gd’s blessings when we follow the lifestyle prescribed by Torah.  Thus, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma tells us that If you listen diligently to My commandments … I will give you rain for your Land in its time, the former rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.  And the opposite is promised if we don’t merit.  Now it appears to me that the whole purpose of living a Torah life is that it brings one into a closer and closer relationship with the Author of the Torah.  This of course is the real reward of a Torah life; the material rewards are ancillary – they simply create the conditions necessary for us to be able to serve Gd with joy and enthusiasm.  If one is basking in the radiance of the Divine Presence, having a little more or a little less in the material plane is nothing worth mentioning at all.

Now if we consider an entire society of people living a life in close communion with Gd, that society would naturally be unified and harmonious.  There would be no place for the greed, violence, pettiness and sensuality that are centrifugal forces that tear a society apart.  Rather, such a society would be characterized by mutual help and support, high individual and group achievement and would be impervious to attack from the outside.  The main predictor of the success of a military unit is not size nor armaments, but unit cohesion.  Thus the Maccabees were able to defeat the Syrian-Greeks of Antiochus, and Jerusalem fell to the Romans only because of infighting among the Jews.  A cursory glance at the history of the State of Israel will confirm this hypothesis as well.

I think that Redemption for us as a people means creating this kind of perfectly integrated society.  We will then be free from foreign domination and we will be living in a society where the skids are greased (with kosher fat of course) for personal growth in spirituality.  I would imagine that this kind of redemption would be most likely to grow organically; perhaps this is the kind of Redemption that will come “in its time.”

I believe that there’s another kind of redemption that takes place on the personal level.  It is obvious that our nation is in exile both physically – half the Jews in the world live outside of our homeland – and spiritually – Israeli society is as yet far from ideal and far from Torah-based.  It is also true that we, as individuals, are in exile.  We, as human beings, all have the capability to choose to do Gd’s Will and thereby come into an intimate relationship with Him.  Yet we often succumb to the allure of sensory pleasure, and move in the direction of earthiness and materiality rather than in the direction of Gd.  The result is that our spiritual senses are dulled and we are no longer able to perceive Gd in the welter of objects that surround us (and to which our attention is drawn).  In the Biblical idiom, Gd “hides His Face.”

Now note that the Torah does not say that Gd goes away somewhere.  Gd doesn’t leave; He doesn’t even go into hiding.  Rather, He is hidden – hidden from us.  Gd is right here, right now.  He is “hidden” by the surface, material level of creation, the world of cause and effect and the laws of nature.  But it is clear that Gd is more hidden to some individuals than to others.  Moshe Rabbeinu had a clearer vision of Gd than you or I, to say the least.  And we all know people who are closer to Gd, and others who are quite estranged from Him.  Depending on the depth and clarity of our perception Gd may be more or less hidden from us.  The point of the Torah lifestyle is to focus our attention on the spiritual values that lie underneath the surface, so that we can, in time, achieve a greater measure of spiritual clarity and closeness to Gd.  In a sense Gd is no more or less hidden, it’s just that we can more and more see through His “disguise.”  This too appears to be an organic process, one that happens “in its time.”

There is a story in the Talmud of R. Elazar ben Dordiya.  He frequented women of ill repute, until one day, at an assignation, the lady blew out a breath and told him “the breath will return to its place before you will be received as a ba’al t’shuvah (penitent).”  He immediately got up and went and sat between two mountains.  He asked the mountains, the stars, the heavens and the earth to pray for mercy for him, but they all responded that they needed mercy themselves.  Finally, he cried out, “The matter rests on me alone.”  He put his head between his knees and cried out until he died.  A heavenly voice called out, “R. Elazar ben Dordiya has been received in Olam haBa.”  When R. Yehuda haNasi (the redactor of the Mishnah, 135 – ~217CE) heard this he exclaimed, “Some people merit Olam haBa after a lifetime, and some gain it in a moment.”

Here we have an example of a different kind of process.  A specific trigger caused R. Elazar ben Dordiya to re-examine, in a very intense way, his entire previous life, and to turn himself around completely and wholeheartedly and in a very short time (“a moment”).  There are examples of this kind of phenomenon in physics.  For example, consider a glass of supercooled water – water chilled to below the freezing point, but slowly and gently, so it doesn’t actually freeze.  If one taps, even very gently, on the side of the glass, all the water will instantly freeze and expand (ice is less dense than water), shattering the glass (go to YouTube and search for “supercooled water” and there are quite a number of videos).  The water has made a phase transition from the liquid to the solid state.  It was prepared in some way (by cooling it slowly and gently) to respond to a microscopic nudge in a macroscopic way.

Like the supercooled water, Elazar ben Dordiya must have been prepared so that when his lady gave him just a nudge, a phase transition took place that, in a moment, pierced through the fog he was lost in and enlightened his eyes to the true nature of reality.  Once the light pierces the fog, life is never the same again – even the memory of that experience is so powerful that it can sustain a person’s faith even if it fades to just a memory.  This is, in my opinion, “hastened” redemption.

I think for the great majority of us, if we are going to achieve Redemption, it will be by a lifetime of gaining “merit.”  We will have highs that sustain us along the way, and we may have times that are not so high when we need to refer back to those sustaining experiences, but whatever, we must keep moving forward, and, in any way we can, help others move forward as well.  Exile is a drag.  We need to do everything we can from our side so that Gd, in His great mercy, will hasten the Redemption for all of us.

Shemoneh Esrei

Heal us Hashem and we will be healed.

Save us and we will be saved,

For you are our praise.

And bring up a perfect healing for all our afflictions.

For You are a Gd, a King, Who is a true and merciful Healer.

Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals the sick of His people Israel.

As I mentioned at some point, my Hebrew name is Rafael, which comes from the root “to heal,” so this is one of my favorite b’rachot in Shemoneh Esrei.  There are a number of features of this b’rachah that I find interesting.

All the b’rachot end with “Blessed are You, Hashem.”  In most cases this is the only mention of the Divine Name in the b’rachah.  However in this b’rachah and the next (the b’rachah for material prosperity), Gd’s Name is mentioned at the very beginning of the b’rachah as well.  I think the significance of this is that these two areas, health and prosperity, are two places where it is very easy to delude oneself that one’s own efforts are determinative of the outcome.  We are sick, we go to a health practitioner, take our medicine, and get better.  We work hard, provide a good product or service for our customers or our employer, and make a living, or possibly make a fortune.  By putting Hashem’s Name right at the beginning of the b’rachah I think we’re being told that this is a wrong conception.  All of the results come from Hashem, and it is to Hashem to whom we must turn if we want to succeed at any endeavor.  We all know people who work hard and honestly and never get ahead (large portions of the world’s population fall into this category) and we know other people who hardly lift a finger and yet seem to have every conceivable material blessing.  Likewise, one patient with a specific disease may respond to treatment, while another, with seemingly identical issues, and receiving the same treatment, succumbs.  What is the difference?  Hashem, for whatever reason, decrees the outcomes.  Therefore we are reminded that especially in these areas, we must be careful to acknowledge Hashem as the source of both our blessings and our afflictions, and that we have been given what we have been given for our ultimate good.  Then we can go out and act to the best of our ability, for “by the sweat of your face you will eat your bread.”

The b’rachah goes on and compares healing to salvation.  But salvation is ultimately a spiritual concept – what is it doing in a blessing asking for physical health?  On the surface level we need salvation for whatever happens to be ailing us, if anything, and of course we must plead with Gd to provide that healing.  I think on a deeper level there is an intimate connection between health and salvation.  I think we can understand individual salvation to be the perfect functioning of the mind, so that it is broad and supple enough to comprehend its own infinite nature and to see that infinite nature in every other part of Gd’s creation.  But the mind has to have a physical substrate, and that physical substrate is the body.  If the body is functioning properly, the mind will be at its best.  If the body is sick, the mind is clouded and diminished.  For individual salvation to take place, the body must be healthy, whole.  Similarly, if the mind is functioning properly, it will direct the functioning of the body in a more and more ideal manner.  The concepts of health and salvation are thus intimately interconnected via the mind-body connection.

In the blessings conclusion we thank Gd for healing “the sick of His people Israel” (cholei amo Yisrael).  With a slight change in the vocalization this can be read “the sickness of His people Israel” (choli amo Yisrael).  What is the “sickness” of our people?  I’d say the leading candidate would be internal dissention.  There is, sadly, some truth to the comment that if the Arabs really wanted to destroy Israel they would simply leave us alone and let us destroy ourselves.  A very close runner-up would be our abandonment of our Tradition.  We all have to understand that salvation is not simply an individual concept.  Separated from the body of the People of Israel, we are limited in how far we can progress spiritually.  If we all row in different directions, the boat is just going to spin in a circle.  So when we pray for our individual health, or the health of family and friends, we need to remember that the nation is sick as well – as Ya’aros D’vash puts it, we are sick from exile – from our estrangement from Gd, from Torah, and from our Land.  This too, we must ask Gd to heal, or even our individual healing and salvation will be at best partial.