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Parashat Vayigash 5776 — 12/19/2015

Parashat Vayigash 5776 — 12/19/2015

Bereishit  44:18-47:27

An observation on lighting the Chanukah candles:  On the first night of Chanukah the candle flames (shammes + 1 candle) were steady – “like a candle in a windless place.”  Tonight, the 3rd night, the candles were all flickering.  Why?  The convection from each candle influences the others.  This is like the difference between pure Being, which is steady, and pure Consciousness, which is conscious of itself – and this creates a virtual “convection” that causes it to (appear to) rise in waves of manifestation.

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Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] … (44:18)

R. Steinsaltz points out that the Haftarah reading often points out the most salient feature of the parashah.  I would add that the first word or few words of the parashah itself often do the same.  In our parashah the Haftarah (from Yechezkel) deals with the reconciliation of Yosef and Yehudah – in the Prophet’s case between the Northern Kingdom (headed by the tribe of Ephraim, one of Yosef’s two sons) and the Southern Kingdom (Yehudah).  Apparently, the Rabbis felt that the most important point of our parashah was the relationship between Yehudah and Yosef.

R. Steinsaltz elucidates several aspects to this relationship, but the one I would like to focus on is this:

Joseph was a true tzaddik.  Sometimes this identity is apparent in a person’s character from birth, and it is immediately clear that this person is innately good.  There is a type of personality for whom perfection is innate.  Jonathan, Saul’s son, seems to fit this characterization – he is a person with no apparent defects [RAR: he is a descendent of Rachel].

   Let us note, however, that such a person – a man who bears an aspect of perfection by his very nature, who was born with all the great gifts and who exercies them in perfect fashion – must be judged by his ability to remain at that level.  Possessing all the virtues is not enough if he is unable to rectify himself the moment he becomes flawed. …

   In this sense – as is evident from their interaction before and after this point – the relation ship of Joseph and Judah is that of a tzaddik and a baal t’shuvah.  The story of Judah and Tamar compared to the story of Joseph and Potifar’s wife is a striking example of this relationship. …

   The wide gulf between [his] actions and his present conduct is precisely what defines Judah’s essence. … Yet Judah, despite all his baggage, rises anew, ready to come to grips with whatever he must face.  This is Judah’s strength.  By contrast, Joseph – by nature and as a matter of principle – cannot change, cannot be flexible.  He is a perfectionist, and this is precisely what breaks him. …

   Wherever Judah and Joseph interact, it is a meeting between perfection and adaptability.  Throughout history, Joseph represents splendor, even heroism.  In contrast, Judah is flawed and beleagured, beset with difficulties; but in the end, Judah always prevails.

This whole idea that somehow a flawed individual is preferred over a perfect one is quite surprising, but it comes straight from the mainstream of Jewish thought.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99) tells us that “Tzaddikim who never sinned cannot stand where ba’alei t’shuvah (repentant sinners) stand.”  Rambam (Hilchot T’shuvah 7:4) explains: “A Ba’al Teshuvah is greater, for he overcomes his nature more than a Tzaddik who never sinned.”

I might point out that in searching for this quote I came across a number of arguments from Rabbis over the past several centuries trying to explain away its plain meaning.  Obviously many people are uncomfortable with the idea that one can reach a higher level of perfection than perfection itself.  Nevertheless, Rambam appears to accept the plain meaning and gives a mechanism by which we might understand it.

Chasidic thought, based on Kabbalah, provides another possible mechanism (see  The Kabbalistic world is one where sparks of holiness invest everything, and it is through our performance of Gd’s mitzvot that these sparks are elevated back to their Divine source.  A footnote in the above link states:

Let’s say a non-observant youngster had a weakness for ham sandwiches. Years later, when he did teshuvah, the ham, having become part of his body, became elevated along with the rest of him in the teshuvah process. In this way, something completely impure was able to be elevated. A tzaddik, on the other hand, would never even think of going near unkosher food, let alone indulge in it. So a baal teshuvah can actually elevate more elements of creation than the tzaddik.

This fits in with the notion that “if you want to pull a person out of the mud, you’re going to have to resign yourself to getting dirty.”  In other words, it is necessary to involve oneself with the material world in order to elevate the material world.  That, after all, is why Gd put our souls into bodies – so that we can become involved in the material world.  Of course there are proper ways to interact with the material – ways which elevate it, and there are improper ways – ways that debase instead of uplifting.  I needn’t point out that this notion that “you have to resign yourself to getting dirty” does not mean that one should seek out sins in order to do t’shuvah!  Most of us do not have the problem of having to seek out sins to commit!  In fact, antinomian movements, like that of Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676) perverted this principle in the most debauched ways.

I’d like to offer some thoughts on this issue.  First, King Solomon tells us that “there is no one so righteous that only does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20).  This would seem to eliminate half of the comparison between the ba’al t’shuva and the tzaddik gamur (“complete” tzaddik), because the tzaddik gamur does not exist.  We can understand why this is so by considering that our souls are put in our bodies specifically to grow by meeting the challenges posed by the body and the material world.  If we were perfect, there would be no need to have those challenges and therefore we would not be forced to take on a body.

This leads, perhaps, to a deeper understanding of the Rambam’s comment.  The tzaddik who never sinned is good by his very nature.  It is not a stretch for him to do the right thing.  For the rest of us, the moral choices that life forces upon us are a stretch.  Sometimes they’re a very big stretch!  But that is the whole point of these challenges.  Sometimes we will not pass the tests, but we will learn from the experience.  Even when we do pass the tests, we learn from the experience.  It is this learning and growth that leaves us in a stronger position than if we had not been tested at all.

The other side of the coin is the fact, as R. Steinsaltz points out, that there is a weakness in the position of the tzaddik gamur, in that when he loses his integrity, he is completely destroyed.  R. Steinsaltz gives the analogy of an egg – an egg is extremely strong, able to withstand tremendous pressure.  But that is only when it is completely whole.  When there is the slightest imperfection in the shell, even a relatively small pressure causes a complete collapse of the structure.  We do not see this in the case of Yosef directly, as he did not, in fact, sin.  However we do see it in the case of his (actually his full brother Benjamin’s) descendant, King Saul.  King Saul was a sinless, humble man who was elevated to the kingship.  When he transgressed the prophet Samuel’s instructions to destroy Amalek completely, he is told that he would lose his kingdom, and quickly descends into madness and death.  Contrast this with his successor, and progenitor of Mashiach, King David.  King David sinned on several occasions, as did his forebear, Yehudah.  However, each time he was able to pick himself up, do t’shuva, and reach new heights of success and accomplishment.

Now if a person is truly a “complete” tzaddik then the inclination to sin is completely absent from his nature.  The structure of his personality is without flaw, and it seems that nothing can challenge that integrity.  Where would the weakness come from that would cause it to crack and crumble?  I don’t know the answer to this; perhaps it has to do with the fact that there is no such thing as a “complete” tzaddik, as we discussed above.  The issue may also be related to the question of why Adam sinned.  Our tradition holds that Adam was created perfect, yet given the opportunity, he transgressed Gd’s instructions.  How can that be, if he was perfect?  Perhaps, as we have speculated before, it is just the nature of creation that the finite comes out of the infinite, only to be reintegrated into the infinite.  But this is a process that involves a movement away, an estrangement of sorts, from the infinite source, followed by a return (t’shuva) to it.  This is the process of the ba’al t’shuva, and the source of his strength.

Perhaps the takeaway lesson for the vast majority of us is this: there is great power in t’shuva.  Without t’shuva the world could not exist – there would only be an outward stroke, towards greater and greater distance from Gd.  The process of t’shuva is the force that counterbalances and fulfills the creation, binding it back to the Creator.  It may be our nature to sin; it may be the nature of creation to be finite, but t’shuva allows us to unfold and connect with the infinite within ourselves.

Haftarah: Yechezkel 37:15-28

As we noted above, the Haftarah deals with the reconciliation of Yosef and Yehudah, in their incarnations as the Northern (Yosef/Ephraim) and Southern (Yehudah) Kingdoms.  Of course we know that this reconciliation got substantially more difficult when the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom (all but Yehudah and Binyamin, and of course the tribe of Levi, which is generally not counted as one of the 12, as it represents the transcendental value) got “lost” after their exile by the Assyrian King, Sencheriv, about 150 years prior to the Babylonian exile.  In the passage, Gd instructs the prophet to write the name of Yehudah on one block of wood, and the name of Ephraim (Yosef’s son) on another, and to hold them together.  Then, when people ask him what he’s up to with the blocks, he would explain that Gd would bring about the reconciliation of the two factions.  The question is, why all the theatrics?

There is a principle in Jewish thought that when a prophecy is not just spoken, but, so to speak, acted out, then it is solidified.  Our haftarah is one example.  In II Kings, Chapter 13, the prophet Elisha tells the King to strike the ground, as a talisman to defeat the Arameans.  He struck the ground 3 times, and Elisha got angry, telling him that had he struck the ground more times, he would have destroyed Aram, not just weakened it.  Much of the book of Hosea is an acting-out of the love of Gd for his wayward people.

What is the mechanism behind this principle?  I can only speculate.  We know that abstract thoughts are ephemeral.  If Yechezkel had just gone around telling people that the two kingdoms would reconcile, everyone would have thought, “Neat!” or “That guy’s nuts!” or the like, and then gone about their business.  Add a bit of theater and all of a sudden the message is concrete.  People remember it, people keep their attention on it, people expect it to happen.  Perhaps it is all the attention and energy that is directed at the prophecy that helps actualize it.  Perhaps the acting out of the prophecy on the material plane sets in motion subtle processes that will eventually cause the prophecy to be fulfilled.  Or perhaps it’s something else.  I’ve always wondered about this, but I’ve never seen an explanation.