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Parashat Vayigash 5777 — 01/07/2017

Parashat Vayigash 5777 — 01/07/2017

Bereishit 44:18-47:27

Yosef could no longer restrain himself before all those stationed upon him … (45:1)

First, note that the verse begins Yosef could not, implying that Yosef was unable to hold himself back; should it not rather have stated: he did not wish to hold himself back from revealing his identity to his brothers.

Second, why does the Torah state that he could not hold back in the presence of all who stood upon him; should it not rather have stated all those standing in his vicinity?

I have translated the verse according to Ramchal’s questions, rather than the way it is commonly rendered. Briefly, Ramchal’s answer to this question is that there are heavenly “lights” above each one of us, either encouraging us to perform certain actions or preventing such actions. Sometimes, whether an action should be performed depends on the time. Thus, shaking the Lulav during Sukkot is a mitzvah, but trying to perform the mitzvah of Lulav at any other time is actually a transgression of the commandment “You shall not add” to the mitzvot. So, in our case, the heavenly lights that up till now had prevented Yosef from (prematurely) revealing himself to his brothers, now virtually forced him to do so, as it was the right time.

This idea of “heavenly lights” controlling what is going on down on the earth is found elsewhere in the Rabbinic literature.

“Said Rabbi Simon: ‘Every single blade of grass has a corresponding ‘mazal’ in the sky which hits it and tells it to grow.” (Midrash Rabba, Bereshit 10:6)


A person does not hit his finger [or, stub his toe] below unless it has been decreed on him from Above. (Talmud, Chullin 7b)

It seems that Gd is controlling us like marionettes! Where is our free will in all of this?

I think there are several answers. Certainly if we stub our toe, that is not a matter of free will. Gd, in His wisdom, may arrange for certain events to occur to us, in order to test us, or to show us where we still need to grow, or to purify us, or for other reasons. What is under our control is how we react to life’s events. If someone cuts us off when we’re driving, we can vent with a tirade of vulgarity, or we can take a deep breath and slow down and try to figure out why that particular event happened and what message it conveys to us. So ordinarily there is no problem reconciling these statements with our individual free will.

Other cases, however, seem to be more problematical. Yosef’s case is one, as we see from Ramchal’s comment. Another is Pharaoh, in the last 5 plagues, where Gd “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and then apparently punished him for being hard-hearted! The number of different explanations for this apparent injustice attests to our Sages’ discomfort with the idea of someone’s losing their free will. A third example was the case of Yehudah and Tamar from two weeks ago. Can we really imagine that Yehudah, from whom Mashiach is to come, really went to (someone he took to be) a prostitute?! Rather, the Midrash tells us, the angel in charge of lust forced him to go to Tamar. Since this was the path that Gd had chosen for Mashiach to arise (i.e. from Yehudah’s offspring from the liaison with Tamar), Yehudah was not allowed to go along the strait and narrow path, as he normally would have.

One feature common to the above three examples is that they all are related to historical processes. In other words, Yosef, Yehudah and Pharaoh are not simply individuals, like you or I. Instead, they represent their tribe, or their nation, or some large group. Large groups have their own feel about them, which we can call “collective consciousness.” I have been going back and forth to Winnipeg over the last several months, and I am always struck by the change in atmosphere when one crosses the border. I doubt I could define it, but even though everyone speaks English and the malls look the same, etc., you are constantly bombarded by subtle signs that it’s not the US. Of course the recent US election campaign has exacerbated some of the differences (I am writing this 3 weeks before the election). Just as it is thought that our individual consciousness emerges from the collective functioning of the nerves in our nervous system, so the collective consciousness of a group emerges from the collective functioning of members of the group. And just as the state of our consciousness reflects back on the functioning of our bodies, so the collective consciousness of all the groups we belong to reflects back on our own individual functioning.

It appears that when it comes to collective consciousness, which is the primary player in historical processes, the same rules of free will that apply to individuals do not operate, at least not in the same way. Where we are free to make moral choices among alternatives, it appears that in aggregate, a society is not as able to make such choices, and the larger the society, the more complex are the interactions among its components, and, it seems to me, the effect of individual moral choices tend to cancel each other out, unless the society is functioning with a great deal of coherence. Therefore we find that those people who represent the collective consciousness of the group – that is, the leaders – often find their choices extremely constrained. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, perhaps not because he was individually a monster, but because he represented a monstrous society. Furthermore, Gd wanted the historical process to play out in a certain way, to create a certain result. Therefore, while individual Egyptians were able to make moral choices, to oppress more or less or not at all, the society as a whole was not free to choose in the same way. As the King Solomon put it, “The hearts of kings are in the hands of Gd” (Prov 21:1).

The takeaway lesson is a difficult one. If one lives in a corrupt society, it can be very difficult to make appropriate choices, and even if we do, it can be very difficult to avoid the negative effects of the overall corruption. All the Egyptians lost their first-born, and the whole army drowned in the Sea, even though some may have been more or less innocent. A coherent group of right-thinking individuals though can overcome a lot of incoherent negatively behaving members of the group, and perhaps it is in this direction that we will need to look for an answer.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayigash (“and he drew near”)

In this parsha, Joseph is reunited with his family, with Jacob, his brothers and his sister Dinah. This is a taste of the reunion of light and darkness, all of the diversity of creation with the Unity that is Gd.

It is a taste of teshuvah, what life is like when the isolation of individuality is graced by the Wholeness of Gd and all limitations dissolve in the Unlimitedness of Gd.

The reunion begins when Judah draws near to Joseph, appealing to him that he will serve as slave to Joseph, instead of his brother Benjamin, child of his father Jacob’s old age.

Joseph is moved by Judah’s loyalty to his father and reveals that he is their brother Joseph, saying for them not to regret their selling him into slavery because it was all ordained by Gd to save the family at time of famine.

Drawing near is a means to get a taste of the reunification of all, but Torah gives a hint of more unification by sometimes calling Jacob, “Jacob” and sometimes “Israel.”

When given the news that Joseph is alive and functional master of Egypt, as Jacob he is mistrustful. But he sees the wealth Joseph gave to his brothers and now he is called “Israel,”  As Israel he sets out for Egypt, making offerings to Gd at Beersheba. Gd gives Israel a vision in the night, yet he calls “Jacob, Jacob,” yet as Israel he answers. Gd tells him not to be afraid of going to Egypt because Gd will protect him, make him a great nation, take him into Egypt and raise him from there. suggests that Jacob and Israel refer to qualities of the human being: as Jacob we are innocent, but toil; but as Israel we are children of Gd, and enjoy the tranquil, non-toiling relationship beyond struggle.

Loyalty (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”) is a means to raise the Jacob aspect of ourselves, towards the level of Love which is Joy.

“Offering” to Gd is a means to unfold more of the Israel aspect of ourselves, the divine aspect. Through love of our neighbors/family/all humans, and through offerings, we raise the toiling aspect of ourselves to the higher level of our self, non-toiling, delighting as children of Gd.

Today, in Judaism, we give prayers instead of animals as our offerings.

Through love and prayer, love and prayer, we reunite ourselves and all and rise to All-in-All, to One.

Baruch HaShem.