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Parashat Vayeshev 5774 — 11/20/2013

Parashat Vayeshev 5774 — 11/20/2013

Hashem was with Yosef, and he became a successful man. (Bereishis 39:2)

Hashem related to Yosef in a way that transcended nature; that was not in keeping with the “way of the world.”  The result was that Yosef did not really need to make efforts to achieve success. Without even trying, he became successful man. In contrast, Hashem related to Yaakov in conformity with the natural way of the world. For this reason, in every realm of endeavor, Yaakov had to make efforts to achieve success. How frequent it is that a person has no inkling of how much Hashem is helping him every step of the way (Bava Kamma 20b). (Chafetz Chaim)

I think we all know people in both the categories described by the Chafetz Chaim in his comment to this verse.  Some people just seem to float through life with a Midas touch, while others have to work hard for everything they have.  Still others work hard and never get ahead at all.  In this country folks in my age bracket (Medicare!) grew up on an ethic that anybody who works hard and plays by the rules will get ahead.  Unfortunately in the last two or three decades we’ve seen all too many cases where not only is that not true, but it seems that society actively thwarts upward mobility.  What then is the relationship between action and results?

We actually began this discussion at some length last week (and, building on that, hopefully can make the discussion shorter this week <g>!).  At the basis of the issue is the distinction between the infinite source of all creation and the finite creation itself.  Action implies change – of place or of state – and change implies space and time.  Space and time themselves are attributes of creation; the infinite is beyond considerations of space and time, and can therefore not be the realm of change.  Somehow the realm of change emerges, or appears to emerge, from the unchanging.

According to our tradition, Gd had to “contract” Himself in order to make room for a finite world to exist (tzimtzum).  This “contraction” creates the possibility of space and time, and therefore of action.  But “contraction” is in itself a kind of action, or change, and therefore should not be something associated with Gd.  How can we understand this?  I think the answer has to do with our point of view.  From our point of view, stuck, as it were, in space, time and boundaries, we can only conceive of the infinite as transcendental to our reality.  And since it is infinite, we are forced to resort to terms like “contraction” to describe the process of creation of the finite from the infinite.

From Gd’s point of view, the reality must be quite different, to say the least.  As Rambam tells us in his 2nd Fundamental Principle of Faith, Gd is unique and unified, and there is no unity like Gd’s Unity.  When we think of something as unified, or integrated, we think of parts of a system that have some relationship to one another; it is the relationship between the parts and their harmonious interactions that creates the level of wholeness that we call a “system.”  (An obvious example is the human nervous system, which is composed of nerve cells that communicate with one another chemically and electrically, but give rise to our consciousness – a much greater level of wholeness – by means of their interactions.)  Not so Gd’s Unity.  Gd has no parts that need to be put together.  Parts are finite, and Gd is infinite.  Gd doesn’t have to be built up piece by piece!  From this level of reality, it makes no sense to talk about contraction or finitude, there is just pure, limitless Being.

This certainly gives us a different perspective on action and results!  Ultimately there is only Being, and no action.  If our mind is fully expanded, so that we are identified with infinity, and not with our body or our emotions or our thoughts, then we have a glimpse of what this perspective might be like.  We see ourselves as pure Being, and yet we see action taking place all around us.  We do not act at all, even though our body or our mind may be acting.  It is as if the universe acts upon itself through our body and mind, rather than our limited ego’s trying to use the body and mind to act on the universe, sometimes for the good and other times maybe not so much.

In the Chafetz Chaim’s terms perhaps we can say that Hashem acts through us; we become perfect instruments by which Hashem’s Will is carried out in the world of action.  To a person who is identified with the infinite, it matters not one bit whether his body works hard or hardly works, or whether he is “successful” in worldly terms or not.  The only thing that matters is Hashem’s Will; his individual will has been completely subsumed in Hashem’s Will.  Such a person is completely under Hashem’s care and protection and he can truly say to any of life’s happenings that it is good, for it comes from Hashem.  In fact, he recognizes that all he has, indeed all he is, is from Hashem.  And this, in fact, is the goal of human existence, the purpose for which Hashem created us in the first place!

Shemoneh Esrei

See our suffering/poverty

Fight our fights

For Your Name’s sake

For You are a powerful Redeemer.

Blessed are You Hashem, Redeemer of Israel.

The Jewish people has known its share of suffering and violence in its history, and, since it has generally been a weak minority, it must lean on a more powerful helper to level the playing field as it were.  Unfortunately, we too often look for that more powerful helper in this world, failing to recognize that everything in this world is simply a tool for Hashem’s Will to be done.  Therefore, we must ask for the help we need, and be alert and discerning to recognize it when it comes.  If it appears that I am alluding to the relationship between the State of Israel and the US, I am, but of course not exclusively so.  Currently, on the international stage, the US has been a great force to help Israel protect itself, and Gd has rewarded it accordingly.  But on the level of individuals and communities the pattern is repeated over and over again.  Our job is never to believe that “my strength and the power of my hand” is responsible for any success we may have.  Rather, it is Gd’s Will that we survive, and sometimes prosper.

What is the purpose of Gd’s providing for us in this way?  It is, as the b’rachah states, “for [His] Name’s sake.”  Gd’s Name denotes the way Gd acts and is perceived in the world.  The Jewish people have the mission to sanctify Gd’s Name – to bring the universe to higher and higher levels of perfection, so that it may more and more perfectly reflect Gd’s absolute Perfection.  When we say this b’rachah, we can have in mind that the world is still a dangerous place for Jews and for the State of Israel, and we should be asking for Gd’s protection.  But I think we should also bear in mind the ultimate reason Gd had for creating us and for preserving us – to sanctify Him by our actions and thereby to bring fulfillment of the Divine plan for creation that much closer.