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Parashat Vayigash 5774 — 12/04/2013

Parashat Vayigash 5774 — 12/04/2013

Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef..:'(Bereishis 45:3)

During the entire period beginning from when Yosef’s brothers first came to buy grain in Egypt – when Yosef hid his identity from them, spoke very harshly to them and accused them of beings spies – the brothers asked each other many questions: “What is this all about and why is it happening to us?” They looked for ways out and blamed one another. The second time that they came, they found themselves asking again, “What is this all about and why is Hashem doing this to us?” Until they heard from their brother’s mouth just two words, “Ani Yosef – I am Yosef.” Immediately, all of their questions, doubts, and bewilderment disappeared, and the whole matter became completely clear to them.

So will it be when the entire world hears the two words, “Ani Hashem – I am Hashem’ Immediately, all of the questions about how the world has been running will be answered and the mysteries will be cleared up. Suddenly, it will all become perfectly clear, and all of humanity will see at the same moment that it was Hashem orchestrating everything – and only for our good.  (Chafetz Chaim)

Last week we discussed two different types of Redemption – Redemption that is the work of a lifetime (“in its time”) and Redemption that some achieve in a moment (“I will hasten it”), as in the case of R. Elazar ben Dordiya, or Yosef’s being hurried to meet with Pharoah at specifically the time that Gd had determined (the latter of course having aspects of both “in its time” and “I will hasten it”).  This week we have a different aspect of Redemption that is highlighted in what is perhaps the most dramatic moment in the Biblical narrative – Yosef’s revelation of himself to his brothers.

We all know the background: Yosef’s brothers have sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Over the past 22 years (one year serving Potiphar, 12 years in prison – 10 for slandering the 10 brothers + 2 extra for relying on the Chief Butler to get him out, 7 years of plenty and the first 2 of the famine) Yosef has gotten a new skype address and the brothers have lost touch.  In fact, one Midrash attributes Yosef’s accusation that the brothers are spies to the fact that he didn’t want them asking too many questions, finding out that the all-powerful viceroy used to be a slave from Canaan, and connecting the dots.  Yosef puts the brothers through a series of tests to determine whether they still harbor the animosity that animated them towards him, and, by extension, towards his full brother Binyamin (Rochel’s other son).  When they pass the test – Judah offers to remain as the viceroy’s slave in Binyamin’s stead – Yosef reveals his identity to his dumbfounded brothers.

Incidentally, I see a parallel between Lavan, the father of Rochel and Leah, and Bilaam, who attempted to curse the Jewish people at Balak’s request (in Sefer Bamidbar, Parashat Balak).  Bilaam was unsuccessful, as Gd turned his curses into blessings, but he did leave Balak with advice that ensnared Israel in sin and caused the loss of some 24,000 men.  In the same way Lavan tried to destroy the nascent Jewish people, as we declare when we bring our first-fruits to the Temple, and in the haggadah on Pesach: An Aramaean [tried to] destroy my father.  Lavan too was unsuccessful, but he did have a negative, and long-lasting effect.  By giving his two daughters (our Sages tell us they were twins) to Yaakov he fostered sibling rivalry between them.  Rochel was able to overcome her feelings of hurt and betrayal, as the Midrash tells us, but the rivalry was passed down to the sons, and internecine strife has been the bane of the Jewish people from the time of Yosef”s sale to the present day.  In some sense, this is Lavan’s legacy to us.

Why were the brothers dumbfounded?  The Chafetz Chaim, based on the Midrash, tells us: Immediately, all of their questions, doubts, and bewilderment disappeared, and the whole matter became completely clear to them.  The whole incomprehensible story all of a sudden made sense – Yosef’s actions were not arbitrary, nor were they cruel.  In fact, they allowed the brothers to experience perfect repentance, and restored harmony to the family.

So this is a sort of Redemption – where there was ignorance and confusion, now there is knowledge and clarity.  All the parts fit together as a harmonious whole.  What exactly changed?  The answer is – the brothers’ knowledge changed.  The objective situation was exactly the same.  Yosef was the same viceroy as before.  The brothers were the same guilty consciences as before.  But once Yosef said Ani Yosef! / I am Yosef!  the whole world looked different to the brothers.

There is an Indian folk tale.  One dark night someone in a village saw something slithery in the street.  “Snake, snake” he yelled.  Others came out, saw the object and took up the cry.  Soon the whole village was cowering in their houses, afraid of the snake.  After a few hours the sun rose, and everyone looked out on the fearsome creature.  It was a rope.  Life returned to normal.  What was different at sunup?  Nothing was objectively different.  The only difference was that with the light, it was possible to perceive clearly, and that meant that the people had correct and full knowledge, not a delusion, and could act accordingly.  During the night the people’s subjective reality was a snake, even though that did not correspond to objective reality.  Once the light shone, the subjective and objective realities matched.

Now the Chafetz Chaim goes on to say that the situation of Yosef and his brothers is actually a paradigm for the process of Redemption.  In our unredeemed state we go through our lives blissfully (?) ignorant of our own inner, infinite nature, and of Gd, the basis of all existence.  At some point however, this ignorance becomes untenable, and Gd finally reveals Himself – Ani Hashem.  This gives us a very different perspective on the world!  Rather than seeing everything as separate entities interacting with one another, all of a sudden we see creation as an integrated whole.  Rather than seeing sin and suffering, we see harmony and perfection in the light of the Divine.  Instead of greed and exploitation we find charity and cooperation.  What changed?  Again, nothing objectively.  What changed is our knowledge.  We may have believed in Gd before; now we know through direct experience that Gd is real and is infinite, yet involved in the world.  Once our eyes, and our minds, open, there is no closing them again.

We quoted Rabbi Yehudah haNasi last week saying, “Some attain the World to Come in a lifetime, and some attain it in a moment.”  Sometimes it takes a lifetime of practice of all the spiritually elevating practices in our tradition, to achieve a level of enlightenment.  At other times some stimulus will cause a phase transition in a person’s awareness, as in the case of Yosef’s revelation on his brothers or Elazar ben Dordiya’s encounter with his prostitute.  Rather than a gradual expansion of awareness, there is a sudden shift from one reality to another.  In either case, once the newer, truer reality is experienced, there is no going back.  The blinders are off, never to be replaced.  This awakening to the reality of Gd is the ultimate purpose of human existence.  Since we can’t count on a miraculous awakening, let’s do whatever we can from our side to merit that awakening.  As Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”  Chance is in Gd’s Hand.  Preparation is in ours.

Shemoneh Esrei

Bless for us, Hashem, this year and all its kinds of produce for good,

And grant [dew and rain for a] blessing upon the face of the earth,

Satisfy us with Your goodness and bless our years like the best years.

Blessed are You Hashem, who blesses the years.

…it is fitting to pray in the morning for Gd’s help in earning an honest living, since eating food tainted with the slightest ttrace of wrongdoing defiles the body and deprives the soul of nourishment.  An honest meal is nourishment for the soul; by eating it you release the “sparks of holiness” trapped in the food…

…many evildoers are reincarnated as cattle or plants.  If a person is not careful about guarding the purity and sanctity of his meal [e.g. by eating non-kosher food, or stolen food], the spirits of reincarnated evildoers cling to him, causing him to become an evildoer himself.  (Ya’aros D’vash)

I mentioned last week that both this b’rachah and the previous one, for health, have Gd’s Name right in the beginning, as if to tell us not to dare forget that both health and wealth come from Gd.  While we have to make an effort, ultimately we are not in control of the outcomes of our actions.  The outcome is Gd’s blessing to us.

The part of this b’rachah that resonates with me the most is the phrase Satisfy us with Your goodness.  If we focus on the material world, it is impossible to be satisfied.  After all, the material world is finite, which means that no matter how much we have, we could always have more.  No matter how much of His goodness Gd showers on us, we will never be satisfied with it.  As long as human greed is not kept in check, social imbalances will grow and distortions in the political system will result, until nature finds a way to create a better balance.  Often this process is quite painful. Since the underlying cause of the problem, namely separation from Gd, is rarely, if ever, addressed, the new order contains the same inherent instability of the old one, and more or less quickly degenerates into an equally perverse system, as a glance at modern revolutions and their aftermaths amply demonstrates.

Instead, we really need to focus on the infinite spiritual value of everything we have.  Our Sages say (Avot 4:1) Who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion.  And why should we not rejoice?  Everything Gd gives us, He gives us for our good.  And everything Gd doesn’t give us, He withholds for our own good, whether it be to challenge us to grow in our ability to accomplish something good in the world, or to direct us away from harmful behavior, or whatever.  If we keep this in mind, we can resist the temptation to grab more of the finite pie for ourselves, whether we have earned it or not.  We can be spared the pangs of envy, and the agony of having our material fortunes turn to dust and ashes in our mouths.  We will be able to say along with Ya’akov Avinu: I have everything.  We will lack nothing, and we will rejoice in whatever we have.  If we own infinity, what difference does it make if we have more playthings or fewer?!  This one understanding, translated into practical behavior, is enough to cure all the economic woes we have been experiencing lately.  Maybe those woes are Gd’s wake-up call to pay attention to this b’rachah!