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Parashat Vayigash 5780 — 01/04/2020

Parashat Vayigash 5780 — 01/04/2020

Happy New Year to all and may 2020 be a year of all the blessings of Heaven and Earth

Bereishit 44:18-47:27

Know for a certainty that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall enslave them and oppress them for 400 years (15:13).
And He said, “I am Gd, the Gd of your father; have no fear of descending to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there (46:3).

The enslavement was foretold by Gd, but Gd did not specify where or to whom Avraham’s descendants would be subject. Yet the entire Yosef saga seems to be predicated on getting the nascent Jewish people specifically down to Egypt. Why Egypt? Or haChaim explains:

… I will first cite the words of the saintly R. Shimon bar Yochai and his confidants, who said that the reason for the exiles is to draw out the portions of holiness that are scattered among the branches of the kelipah [in their places of exile]. Now, since Egypt was full of idols and was the place of the most severe impurity, it was the place where the most numerous and most powerful aspects of holiness had been trapped, for the greater the level of impurity, the greater will be the aspects of holiness within it. … The eyes of all the Jewish people are on this during all the exiles [as it is the Jews who have the power to liberate the sparks of holiness through performance of mitzvot and through prayer].

Let’s take a step back and define some terms. To understand what are the kelipah and the “sparks of holiness” trapped within the kelipah, we have to consider the Kabbalistic explanation of the process of creation. The process begins with Gd’s contracting Himself, as it were, to leave space for creation. Into this space Gd radiated His supernal light (the “let there be light” light) which was supposed to illuminate and animate various “vessels” that were in the “space” that was created in the initial “contraction” (tzimtzum). Unfortunately, the light was too strong for the vessels to contain, and they shattered, creating the kelipah (lit. “shells”) in which sparks of the Divine light are trapped. The process of cosmic evolution is imagined as a gradual “redemption” or “liberation” of the sparks of holiness from their bondage in the kelipah.

As an aside, it occurred to me that there might be a hint in Torah and Midrash to this process. In parashat Vayishlach we read that Ya’akov crossed the river and was left alone; there he wrestles with the “man” who dislocates his hip and gives him a blessing. The Rabbis ask why he crossed the river in the first place, and answer that he wanted to retrieve some “small vessels” that he had left on the other side of the river (and not “to get to the other side”!). Perhaps this is a hint to the “vessels” that Gd “left” in the space He “vacated” in the process of contraction. Full disclosure: the word for “vessels” used in the Midrash about Ya’akov (pachim) is different from the word for “vessels” used in the Kabbalistic creation narrative (keilim).

Or haChaim goes on:

The Sages of blessed memory further stated that the people who left Egypt and stood at Mt. Sinai were people [whose souls] had been trapped within the kelipah of Egypt … It was to this matter that Hashem alluded when He spoke to Ya’akov, the reason He had decided that Ya’akov should remain settled in Egypt was on account of the “great nation” [of sparks of holiness] that was forsaken there in the kelipah of Egypt, which Ya’akov needed to draw out from there, for without Ya’akov’s going down [to Egypt] there would be no hope of accomplishing this. Due to his intense holiness, he would be able to draw out all the branches of holiness that were there, which nobody else could have done.

Here we have not only the beginning of the story of exile and redemption of the Jewish people, but the story of the Jewish people’s partnership with Gd in creating redemption on a cosmic level. The process of exile begins with Gd’s contraction; that is, with the creation of duality from unity, a point value from infinity, “not-Gd” as it were from Gd. Now that there is a duality, even a virtual duality, that duality can ramify and become multiplicity. Kabbalah pictures this process as the “shattering of the vessels.” Another analogy might be this – we have this virtual duality with two poles. Since the duality is really within Gd, there is really no “distance” between the poles, and any relationship between them will therefore be of an infinite frequency. This vibration then breaks down into other patterns of vibration at lower frequencies, and these patterns of vibration form the basic structure of creation. They are perceivable as sound, in particular, the sounds of the Hebrew language according to the Zohar, and form the “supernal Torah” of which the Torah that we were given on Mt. Sinai is a projection onto our earthly plane.

As another aside, perhaps Moses’ shattering of the two tablets is a projection of the primordial shattering of the vessels. There are two tablets, representing the primordial duality: one tablet governs relations between humans and Gd, and the other governs the relations among humans, so there is, in a sense, the Gd/”non-Gd” duality. The Revelation, we are told, was too much for the people to bear, it was too intense an effulgence from Gd for their nervous systems to contain. Perhaps that overload was a contributing factor to the incident of the golden calf, and that, of course, was the proximate cause of Moshe’s shattering of the tablets. The holiness of the tablets was too intense for a people that can dance around a golden calf, just as the holiness of Gd’s supernal light was too much for the “vessels” to contain. The result was a shattering. Indeed, an encounter with Gd can be a shattering experience.

Now a very important point is that there are “sparks of holiness” contained within the kelipah. What does this mean? Holiness is the transcendental wholeness of life, while the kelipah is a boundary. When we say that there are sparks of holiness in the kelipah, we are just expressing the reality that all boundaries are simply expressions of the unbounded, in the same way that waves are just expressions of the ocean. The waves are not separate from the ocean – they are just the ocean rising up into a specific pattern. But the ocean never loses its status as the ocean, permeating and pervading all of its expressions.

What does it mean to “draw out the sparks of holiness,” and why did Ya’akov have to go to Egypt to do it? Nowhere that I’m aware of does our tradition talk about destroying the kelipah. It merely talks about drawing out the holiness that is contained within it. What I think that must mean is that somehow the transcendental underlying reality that is hidden by the “shell” or covering, has to be made visible on the surface. That reality, which is all-pervasive, already is on the surface of every little bit of creation; it just has to be made manifest so to speak. Where the impurity, or disorder and fragmentation, is more intense (Egypt), it takes a greater influence of orderliness (holiness) to make it manifest. Thus Ya’akov, the individual at the pinnacle of holiness, is assigned to the task. The result is the creation of a holy nation, a nation dedicated to bringing holiness to the surface of life. That is the task we have been given.

PS: There is one more aside I should mention. The idea that one has to descend into the kelipah to elevate the sparks of holiness within them, as Ya’akov descended into Egypt, has given rise to some highly sketchy episodes in our history. It has been used to justify all kinds of antinomian tendencies, particularly in the hands of manipulative, charismatic leaders, and especially in the area of sexual exploitation and immorality. While one does have to descend into exile, we have already done that by clothing our souls in bodies. But we have to maintain, or even increase, our level of holiness in order not to become part of the problem, rather than the solution. And that means purifying both soul and body, not sullying them with perverse behavior.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayigash (“and he drew near”)
In this parshah, Joseph is reunited with his family – with his brothers, his sister Dinah, and most importantly, his father, Jacob. This is a taste of the reunion of isolated streams of life so they are brought together to experience the Wholeness that is greater than any of Its expressions, a taste of the reunion of the diversity of creation with the Unity that is Gd.

It is a taste of teshuvah, a taste of 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 opportunity for the reunion occurs, when famine strikes in the region around Egypt, Mitzraim (restrictions) , including Canaan (Synchronicity), Jacob sends 10 of his sons to purchase food from Mitraim , which due to Joseph’s gift of perceiving Gd’s message in dreams, has stored up food during fat years for the seven famine years that are now occurring.

Joseph, de facto ruler of Mitzrayim, recognizes his brothers though they do not recognize him. He plays tricks on them in order to get not only his brothers – some members of his family to bring the whole family together by getting their father also to come to the Raised Land of Mitzraim, Mitzraim ruled by Joseph, very much aligned with the Ocean of Wholeness that is Gd, with the whole family together.

One of the tricks is to hide a silver goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag and then to discover it and claim that Benjamin, most dear to his father Jacob since Joseph was no longer with him, was a thief and must serve as Joseph’s slave.

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 not only of Joseph’s family but also of all individuals with Gd. Torah gives a hint of more unification by sometimes calling Jacob, “Jacob” and sometimes “Israel.”  “Jacob” means “heel”, spirituality clinging to the heel of materialism. “Israel” means something like “in the Splendor of Gd”, “embracing Gd”, “prevailing over Gd.”

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, “his spirit is revived” and now he believes Joseph is still alive, he is called “Israel” and as Israel he sets out for Egypt, making offerings to God at Beersheba.

When we trust that all happens according to Gd’s Will, that everything is done with the purpose of restoring us to Oneness, then we are no longer Jacob, spirituality clinging to the heel of materiality, but Israel, raised by the perception of Wholeness as the Essence of materiality, to awareness of our own Wholeness, our own Oneness.
Gd gives Israel a vision in the night, yet he calls to him “Jacob, Jacob” — though Gd may refer to us in our limited aspect it is to wake us up to our Unlimitedness.

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 reunification with the Jacob aspect of ourselves, the human servant aspect. “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, we raise the toiling aspect of ourselves to the higher level of our self, non-toiling, delighting as children of God, delighting in the Oneness that is our Self, the Only Self, Pure Delight, Free from Toil.

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

Through love and prayer, love in our hearts and our action and prayer in our hearts and our words we reunite ourselves and all and rise to All-in-All, to One, Pure Love, Pure Joy, Pure Delight.

Baruch HaShem.