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Parashat Vayeshev 5775 — 12/10/2014

Parashat Vayeshev 5775 — 12/10/2014

l’ilui nishmat Miriam Chava bat Sophia, nifteret 17 Kislev 5775 — 9 December 2014

I apologize for posting this so late, and I want to thank all the members of Beth Shalom and the Fairfield Jewish community who have supported and comforted me in my recent loss.  Bob

In the last two parshiot we have been discussing the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, and we have focused on the dual nature of the human condition: we are at once infinite in our essence, created in the “image of Gd,” and yet we inhabit, and to a certain extent identify with, a finite body which allows us to act in the world of finite values.

In this week’s parashah, the cudgels are taken up, so to speak, by Yosef, son of Rachel, and Yehudah, son of Leah.  Rav Kook gives a somewhat different perspective on this archtypal rivalry:

The root of the disagreement among the brothers was in fact ideological. There were two schools of thought in Ya’akob’s family, one championed by Yosef, the other by Yehudah. Yosef stressed the mission of the Jewish people as “a light unto the nations.” In order to fulfill this goal, Yosef felt that we must interact with the nations of the world and expose them to the monotheistic teachings of Judaism.

   Yehudah, on the other hand, was concerned about the negative influences when intermingling with pagan cultures. He emphasized the separate sanctity of the Jewish people, “a nation that dwells alone” (Nurn. 23:9). Judah feared that Joseph’s philosophy of openness and integration would endanger the future of the Jewish people. But how to safely neutralize this threat?

   Shimon and Levy, who had already fought against assimilation when they decimated the city of Shechem for kidnapping Dina, planned to simply kill Yosef. Yehudah objected, “What profit is there if we kill our brother?” (Gen. 37:26). The true danger is not Yosef, but his school of thought. Let us put his theories to the test. We will sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and let him assimilate among the nations. Then all will see where his ideas lead to.

Well, we know where those ideas led to.  Yosef went down to Egypt where he, in fact, did not assimilate, despite rising to the highest levels of power and influence.  On the other hand, when the entire nascent Jewish people followed him to Egypt, it began to fall into the grasp of the materialistic Egyptian society, and to lose the innocence and purity it enjoyed when it was just Ya’akov’s household, herding its flocks in the Holy Land.  In fact, our Sages tell us that had Gd not redeemed us when he did, we would have slipped to the “50th level of impurity,” a point of no return where we would have been lost for good.  At the end of next week’s parashah we read And Israel lived in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and it was grasped by [the Land].  The colloquial translation of course is that Israel gained holdings (presumably of real estate), but the verb is in the passive, and indicates that rather than the Jews’ owning property, the property started to own the Jews!  So Yehudah’s fears are certainly justified.

In a similar fashion, the Sages explain the sin of the spies (in Bamidbar, parashat Shelach).  Why did the spies seek to dissuade the people from entering the Land of Israel.  One explanation is that the spies argued that it would be better for the nation to be living in the desert, miraculously sustained and protected by Gd, and free to devote itself almost exclusively to its spiritual development, than to enter the Land and have to deal with all the trouble and toil and temptations of “making it” in the material world.  And certainly, the story of Israel in the Land of Israel is a story of spiritual decline and eventual exile.  So the spies’ fears were certainly justified.

We find the same issue arising today.  Even among the Chasidim, there are groups that are actively engaged in outreach (Chabad Lubavitch being a prime example) and others that vehemently oppose any but the most vital interactions with the outside world (Satmar, for example).  We see the very important mitzvah of modesty elevated to such status that men go around in public with veils over their eyes, in case a woman should happen to stray into their line of vision, being led by another member of their community who presumably finds less temptation in the sight of a woman.

Nonetheless, it appears to be Gd’s plan for us that we are not allowed to sit in splendid isolation, developing our inner selves and waiting for Gd to feed and clothe us miraculously.  We did descend to Egypt “coerced by the Word” (Haggadah) because only there, in facing down the challenges of Egypt, could we become a great nation.  And Gd certainly did not let us linger in the wilderness after the decreed 40 years was up.  We had to enter the Land, wee had to face the challenges of planting and sowing and reaping, defending the Land militarily, and setting up social structures that would allow our society to grow and prosper.  Obviously, Yehudah’s doubts notwithstanding, Yosef’s vision appears to be favored.  Even our long exile, where we are dispersed to virtually ever corner of the world, facilitates engagement rather than isolation.  (When the Satmar Chasidim wanted to isolate themselves they had to buy a tract of land in rural upstate NY and incorporate their own city, which they run pretty much according to the dictates of Jewish law.)

I don’t think that this conclusion should be so very surprising actually.  There is a Talmudic dictum: Gd did not create the world to be desolate, but to be inhabited.  If Gd had wanted to sit in splendid isolation, He wouldn’t have created anything at all!  But although Gd has no lacks or needs, and certainly didn’t have to create, it apparently pleased Him to do so, with the idea of leaving it imperfect, so that human beings, through their free-willed right action could perfect it.  Therefore we see that the whole existence of creation, and its whole purpose, cries out for engagement.  There really is no monastic tradition in Judaism.

And yet, we, Jews = Yehudim, are almost all of us descended from Yehudah.  The tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, descended from Yosef, led the rebellion against the Davidic monarchy after the death of King Solomon, and have disappeared along with the other northern tribes.  What happened to Yosef and his dreams?  One answer is that the Jewish people is indeed incomplete without the missing tribes, and we have to assume that in the times of Mashiach, or perhaps in the times leading up to the Messianic Age, those tribes will be “found,” in much the way the B’nai Menashe people in India has recently come to light (although some DNA studies have cast doubt on these people’s Mideastern roots).

Here is another possibility: the Rabbis of the Midrash tell us that after Ya’akov Avinu blessed each of his 12 sons with a special blessing appropriate to it, he then blessed all 12 of the sons with all the 12 blessings!  In other words, it is true that each tribe has a unique pathway to Gd and to Gd’s service, but just as every small piece of a hologram contains the full information of the entire hologram, so each tribe contains within it all the specific tribal tendencies, even if one or another is more predominant in each tribe.  If we can extend this idea a bit, perhaps we can say that all of us, no matter what tribe we actually descend from, have the full value of all aspects of the Jewish people integrated into our personality.  We may be from the tribe of Yehudah, but Yosef and his urge to engage the world lives in us.

Ultimately, our mission as a people is to perfect the world.  We certainly must take care of our inner lives, our connection to Gd, to have any hope of success in that mission.  But I doubt very much that merely taking care of our inner life is going to be sufficient.  We have to let our perfection shine through and radiate out into our environment in order to perfect it too.  As Hillel famously said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I don’t take care of my own spirituality, certainly the environment won’t help.  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  We dare not be so self-absorbed that we forget about other people, events in the world, ways we can help others.  If not now, when?  When indeed?!  We’re starting a new year and a new cycle of parshiot; when is now!

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 9: The Universal Story

In this moving essay, R. Sacks describes the influence that the Hebrew Bible, and in particular the story of the Exodus, has had on Western thought.  In particular, the process of redemption from oppression and creation of an ideal society under Gd’s sovereignty, which is the central story of the Exodus, and indeed all of Torah, is also an underlying theme of the American, and especially the American immigrant, experience.  Our insistence that we are a nation of laws, and not men (i.e. that  all must submit to the law, no matter how rich and powerful) can only be justified if our laws are, ultimately, given by One Who is transcendental to our system and has outside authority.  Obviously, this is Gd.  Perhaps R. Sacks’ perspective from across the ocean gives him a clearer picture of this than we, who are immersed in it, can perceive.

In fact, our national story of exile and redemption is also universal in the sense that it mirrors the process of creation.  As we have discussed, Gd creates from within Himself, sending the creation out into “exile” as it were, banished from His presence.  In the case of human beings, who have free will, this banishment is caused by sin.  But all of creation is striving with all its might to return to its infinite source, and it is our special purpose as individual Jews and as members of the Jewish people, to work to uplift ourselves and everone and everything in our environment and recreate the original Unity of the Creator, just this time integrated with the diversity we find around us.  In redeeming the universe, we redeem ourselves.