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Parashat Miketz 5775 — 12/17/2014

Parashat Miketz 5775 — 12/17/2014

Much of the latter half of the Book of Genesis is taken up with the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, and their children Yehudah and Yosef.  In this week’s parashah, we find Yosef in the driver’s seat, as viceroy of Egypt, while the brothers are trying both to buy food and to figure out why the experience is so Kafka-esque.  Rav Kook takes a somewhat different tack here:

The strife among Jacob’s sons centered on two conflicting viewpoints vis-à-vis the sanctity of the Jewish people. Yehudah felt that we need to act according to the current reality and that, given the present situation, the Jewish people need to maintain a separate existence from other nations in order to safeguard their unique heritage. Yosef, on the other hand, believed that we should focus on the final goal. We need to take into account the hidden potential of the future era, when “nations will walk by your light” Isaiah 60:3). Thus, according to Yosef, even nowadays we are responsible for the spiritual elevation of all peoples.

Last week we discussed the conflict in terms of withdrawal from the world vs. engagement with it.  Here it appears that Rav Kook is going deeper, to the root of the dilemma, which lies in the way each side perceives reality.  It appears that Yehudah is focused on the here and now, the concrete present, while Yosef is able to see beyond the surface reality to the infinite spiritual potential at its basis.

This difference in perspective is reflected in other areas of Jewish thought as well.  For example, R. Shimon bar Yochai, to whom authorship of the Zohar is attributed, declared that anyone who focused his entire energy on full-time Torah study for its own sake, Gd would take care of all his material needs.  A couple of centuries later, Abaye commented that “many have tried this, but few have succeeded.”  The trick of course is to be completely devoted to one’s Torah study.  Now anyone whose consciousness is advanced enough to be able to focus on developing and maintaining his connection to Gd as his only concern in life will certainly act in such a way that there will be no hindrance to the flow of Gd’s blessings upon him – what we see is that his sustenance appears when he needs it, almost miraculously.  However, as Abaye astutely points out, very few people are on such an exalted spiritual level.  For the vast majority of us, we struggle to maintain any kind of connection to Gd, and that connection is generally on an intellectual level only, barely penetrating to the heart.  We need to eat our bread by the sweat of our proverbial brows, the natural way, rather than the supernatural way.  We are immured in the concrete present.  R. Shimon bar Yochai was able to see the spiritual potential of every bit of creation, and could use it to his advantage.

Now when we compare ourselves to R. Shimon bar Yochai the difference is glaringly obvious.  When we compare the tribal forebears, the comparison is much less facile.  Each was a great progenitors of part of the nation.  Yosef, in particular, had miraculous success as the Torah testifies – everything he touched turned to gold, even during the long years in prison.  Further, he was able to discern Gd’s plan for him, even in the negative circumstances in which he found himself.  So perhaps it is natural that he would be the one to espouse the view that we must focus on the potential in a person or a situation.  Yehudah, on the other hand, provided the political leadership of the nation, and was therefore forced to deal with practical, day-to-day reality.

We have discussed in the past that creation is structured in layers, with the more surface layers being the concrete manifestations of the underlying, abstract layers of potential beneath them.  Thus the molecular level is a more manifest level than the atomic level which underlies it, and which is in turn made from the various subatomic particles, and so forth.  And we further noted that the different layers are not in different places – in fact, they are really just different descriptions of the very same phenomena at different scales of time, space and energy.  We can say that the atomic layer is “deeper” than the molecular layer, but in reality there is just one phenomenon and there are many different ways to speak about it, depending on what we want to do with it.

I think we can apply this understanding to Rav Kook’s analysis.  Yehudah and Yosef are not describing two different worlds – they are giving two different descriptions to the same universe, but focusing on different layers.  Yosef is focusing on the spiritual potential of the Jewish people – their ultimate goal of enlightening the world to the existence and omnipotence of Gd.  Yehudah is working with the same nation, but is focusing on its surface, current status, and devising strategies to bring the potential that Yosef sees out into the open.  But the two are not in contradiction to each other – both are simply different, but valid, interpretations of the same phenomenon.

Which approach is more practical?  I think we need to refer to R. Shimon bar Yochai and Abaye.  For those on a very exalted spiritual level there is really no difference between the potential and the real.  Since there is a clear channel of communication between the infinite field of pure potentiality at the basis of creation, virtually whatever we think, we can create.  The material world is not a thick obstacle, blocking out the light of the Divine, but rather a clear mirror reflecting it in all its glory.  Of course for the rest of us, we need to take practical steps to support our material selves, while at the same time developing our spiritual capabilities.

Our job as a nation is to bring Gd’s light into every corner of creation.  There are two ways to do this.  We can be out in the world, acting in such a way as to increase its perfection.  The other way is to stay inside ourselves, radiating our own infinite nature outward.  Ideally these two modalities should be integrated, not opposed to one another, any more than the body and soul are supposed to be opposed to one another.  We should all dedicate ourselves to creating this integrated state within ourselves as individuals, and within the nation as a whole.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 10: The Omer and the Politics of Torah

The Counting of the Omer is the period between Pesach and Shavuot.  Pesach of course celebrates our freedom from Egyptian slavery, but Shavuot celebrates something much more significant – the giving of the Torah.  It is only with the giving of the Torah that we truly became a free people.  R. Sacks points out that there are two kinds of freedom: chofesh means freedom in the sense of being free from external constraints, and this is what Pesach is all about.  The other kind of freedom is cherut, freedom to be what we are supposed to be, whatever that may be for us as individuals or as a society.  And that “what we are supposed to be” is defined for us in the Torah.

The two tablets that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Mt. Sinai were “engraved (charut) on both sides.”  The Rabbis say (Avot 6:2), “Don’t read it as charut but cherut, for nobody is truly free unless he occupies himself with Torah.”  Torah is our constitution, our covenant with Gd, where we pledge ourselves to creating a society based on Gd’s Will.  This society is not based on external compulsion nor on individual self-interest.  It is more like an extended family (the children of Israel), whose connections are based on mutual trust and mutual responsibility.  Our society is based on rights – everyone seeking to defend his or her rights against everyone else.  As long as there is a sense of community this can work, but it is inherently unstable, as without a moral code to provide a check on individuals’ assertion of their rights, it becomes a dog-eat-dog world, with everyone focused on grabbing as much as they can and devil take the hindmost.  Just pick up a newspaper if you don’t believe me.  A society based on mutual trust and responsibility, and one which focuses on education, so the covenant is transmitted from generation, has a chance of doing better, as our survival for the past 2000 years, without a police force or army or any of the trappings of government, has demonstrated.

In my own opinion, the real crux of the matter is that as long as we are estranged from Gd, the infinite source of all the material world, no system of government is going to be able to cure the problems brought about by fear and greed.  We are afraid for the future, and we think that we can protect ourselves by stockpiling material goods and by padding our bank accounts.  It’s an illusion – Gd can takes us down in the blink of an eye, as it says I kill and I bring to life, I have struck down and I will heal, and nothing can save from My Hand. (Deut 32:39)  But if we are attached to Gd, then we have everything we could possibly need or want, all the time.  I think the real genius of Torah is that it can bring us to this level of life, and we will create an ideal society based on love and trust and mutual interdependence, spontaneously.