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Parashat Vayigash 5775 — 12/24/2014

Parashat Vayigash 5775 — 12/24/2014

A heartfelt thank-you to all who consoled me in my grief and comforted me in my recent time of need, and who came and helped make a minyan so I could say kaddish for Marie.  “…for his [Jacob’s] soul is bound up with his [Benyamin’s] soul.”  (44:30) 

In parashat Vayigash we finally find the family of Ya’akov Avinu reintegrated.  Yosef has finished testing his brothers and found that they have put aside the rancor (and  the Leah-Rachel rivalry) that caused them to sell him to Egypt, and has revealed his identity to them.  The entire family is reunited in Goshen, under Yosef’s, and Pharaoh’s, protection.  The “best of Egypt” is at their disposal.  It’s all good, right?  The downside of the move is that is was the beginning of our first exile.

Rav Kook explains that there are two purposes to exile:

Exile accomplishes two goals:

1. The people of Israel were created to serve Gd.  The nation needs a pure love of Gd, undiluted by materialistic goals.  Clearly, people are more prone to become absorbed in worldly matters when affluence and prosperity are readily attainable.  In order that the Jewish people should realize their true spiritual potential, Gd made sure that the nation would lack material success for long periods of time.

2. Exile serves to spread the belief in one Gd throughout the world.  As the Sages wrote in Pesachim 87b, “The Holy One exiled Israel so that converts will join them.”  Similarly, we find that Gd explained the purpose of exile and redemption in Egypt, “so that Egypt will know that I am Gd.”  (Ex 7:5)  (Gold from the Land of Israel)

Rav Kook further explains that depending on which purpose is more predominant at a particular time, the conditions of the exile may vary.  If we need to become detached from our over-indulgence in material pleasures, then the economic conditions of our exile will be harsh.  If the predominent idea is to win converts, conditions may be more benign or even favorable, as we have a better chance to win converts if we are on top of the socio-economic ladder than on the bottom.  (I might point out that the Rabbis also say that at times when Jews and Judaism are in the ascendant, such as during the reign of King Solomon, converts were not accepted at all, since their sincerity was suspect.  Perhaps the difference is that during King Solomon’s reign the Jewish people were sovereign in their own land, whereas in exile, even if the community is respected, members of the majority culture would not necessarily feel an economic or social push to join us.  Certainly, at times when we are downtrodden, anybody seeking to join the Jewish people, against their economic and social interests, and sometimes at the cost of their lives, would not be doing it for any ulterior motive.)

In Psalm 19, the Psalmist writes:

Who is the man who desires life …

Turn away from evil and do good …

The two aspects of exile can be related to King David’s formulation. 

  • Turn away from evil: this corresponds with loosening and eventually losing completely our attachment to the material world.  It is our attachment to the limited, manifest creation that creates an all-consuming fear of lack in us, and I believe that all evil actions are, ultimately, based on that fear. 
  • Do good: this corresponds with spreading the knowledge of Gd; this is the ultimate good as it is actually the underlying purpose of creation.

These two aspects are clearly interdependent.  It is hard to spread the knowledge of Gd when you’re engaging in various negative activities because of your attachment to money or fame or power, and if you’re truly connected to Gd, the impulse to act in a negative manner simply does not arise.  Nonetheless, at times one side may predominate, and at other times the other side may predominate.

I think that there is an even deeper interdependence between these two aspects to exile.  Our mission is to spread the knowledge of Gd, that is, to bring the perfection of Gd into the imperfect creation.  Now of course, if there were no creation, there would be nowhere to spread the knowledge of Gd, and of course, we, as individuals, would not exist to do the spreading either.  Therefore it appears that the existence of an imperfect world, one that is, as it were, “exiled” from its infinite source, is fundamental to the nature of existence.  It is in this world that we act out our roles.  Were it not for the existence of evil to turn away from, there would also be no possibility to do good.  Thus it was only after the creation of human beings, who had the potentiality to sin, but also the potentiality to not sin, that Gd called His Creation very good. 

Why creation should be structured this way, we don’t really know, as it would require knowing Gd’s internal “motivations” as it were, and that is beyond human comprehension.  However, our Sages tell us that it is Gd’s desire to do good that was the impetus for creation.  Now Gd does good to all his creatures, as the Psalmist says His mercy is on all His works.  But there is a limit to the goodness He can display in the case of the inanimate world, or even to the animals.  It is only in the case of human beings, who can choose to act in accordance with Gd’s Will or otherwise, and who can therefore earn, to a certain extent, Gd’s goodness, that Gd can display his goodness to the maximum degree.  But since it is inevitable that creatures who can choose will sometimes choose badly, exile, beginning with Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, also becomes an intrinsic part of creation.  Yet Gd tells us, If you improve, will it not be accepted? (Gen 4:7)  We have been given a guidebook to help us make proper choices.  It takes considerable self-discipline to keep ourselves on an upward path.  But we have no choice, if we want our long exile finally to come to an end.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 11: Time As a Narrative of Hope

The way we look at time conditions a lot about the way we look at the world.  R. Sacks identifies two main ideas about time, and, not surprisingly, they distinguish between Egypt and Israel.  The first is “cyclic time.”  This is the time set by the rhythms of nature, the cycles of days and years, of seasons, of plowing and planting and harvesting.  It is a notion of time where things change, but nothing really changes.  I am born, I grow up, I have children, I get old, I pass away, but the cycle of life goes on forever.  More to the point – the social structure doesn’t change.  If I am a peasant, I will always be a peasant, the king will always be the king, he will always be on top and I will always be on the bottom.  It’s very convenient if you’re on top!

Gd proposed for Israel a radically different idea – “linear time.”  Linear time is the time of history and most especially of eschatology.  Certainly there are cycles – Israel too has a calendar that recognizes lunar and solar cycles, because we live in the world of nature.  But there is an “arrow of time” that starts with the act of creation by Gd and leads to a Messianic future where the imperfections and distortions of the world are rectified.  It is in the realm of linear time that Gd acts – miracles do not occur cyclically!  Most important, linear time is the realm in which we can act to bring about changes in ourselves and in our society.  In linear time we can declare, “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.”  And it is this ability to bring about a better world that gives us hope.  And it is hope that distinguishes a free person from a slave.