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Parashat VaYeshev 5773 — 12/05/2012

Parashat VaYeshev 5773 — 12/05/2012

And Hashem blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Yosef. (39:5)

All the nations of the world will be blessed through your descendants. (22:18)

I will bless those you bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse.  All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.  (12:3)

The first quote, which is from our Parashah, has always been one of my favorite verses in Torah, and although we named our firstborn son Joseph after my grandfather A”H, I’ve always seen a manifestation of that verse in his career.  What does it mean though, “to be a blessing,” or to have others be blessed through us?

On a superficial level the answers to this question are readily discerned from the history of the Jewish diaspora.  Basically, anywhere we were welcomed prospered and became great.  When we multiplied and prospered as well, and forgot that we were in exile and assimilated, our hosts would tire of us (see the first chapter of Shemot – the book of Exodus) and expel us, to their detriment and to our next hosts gain.  This happened in Babylonia, where, after the horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (I’m actually writing this just a couple of days before Tisha B’Av), the exiled Jewish community rose to wealth and prominence – so much so that when permission was granted to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, a pitifully small group actually returned.

It happened in Spain, where Jews lived from Roman times up until 1492.  Again, they were prominent in government and business, both under Muslim and Christian rulers.  In 1492 the Inquisition orchestrated the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, an edict that wasn’t officially rescinded for 500 years (literally – until 1992, when Spain established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel).  Spain went from an empire that controlled most of the Western hemisphere to an economic basket case.

It has most certainly happened in North America, where roughly half the Jewish population of the world lives.  While not without their faults certainly, the US and Canada have welcomed the Jewish people with open arms, especially from about the 1880’s on, a period which corresponds to the rapid expansion of our economy and the blossoming of the US into a superpower.  Our success has been way out of proportion to our numbers in just about every field, from the arts and entertainment to science and engineering to politics and business.  Furthermore, the US has been a mainstay of support for Israel as it seeks to maintain itself in a hostile world.  As long as this has been the case, the US has prospered mightily.  The last few years have seen, in some sectors, a weakening of this commitment, and along with this our economy (and our self-confidence as a nation) has also weakened.

Part of the significance of the Yosef story, which we begin in this chapter, is that Yosef is, among other things, a paradigm for Jewish life in exile.  Abraham was forced to leave the Land of Israel due to famine (and some strains of Rabbinic thought actually criticize him for not trusting that Gd would get him through the famine without leaving the Holy Land), but his sojourn was very brief.  Ya’akov spent 20 years in Haran acquiring wives and children, flocks and herds, but his exile was, to a certain extent, voluntary, and he had his family with him.  Joseph, on the other hand, was sold into slavery in a foreign land, a culture inimical to his values, where he knew nobody, didn’t speak the language and had no support system. All he had were the values and rules of proper belief and behavior that he had learned from his father.

His faith and his values were promptly put to a test in the form of Potiphar’s wife.  Potiphar’s wife is representative of sensual pleasure, the values of the body over the spirit.  To this Yosef was hardly immune.  At the beginning of our Parashah he is described as a na’ar, a youth, which our Sages interpret as being self-centered and focused on non-essential things, like his hair and his appearance.  In Egypt Yosef is again criticized for tending a little too much to himself and his physical desires, once he has become established as the supervisor of Potiphar’s estate.  The Midrash has Gd saying to him: “Your father is in mourning and you’re preening yourself?!  I’ll send you some real physical temptation!”

The struggle to resist this temptation was very difficult for Yosef.  In fact, the Midrash reports that it was only when he perceived his father’s face, and heard Ya’akov telling him that he would lose his place among the 12 tribes, that he was able to persevere.  Now Ya’akov Avinu is unique in that our Sages tell us that the likeness of his face was carved on the base of Gd’s Throne.  It’s possible then, to interpret Yosef’s seeing his father’s visage in this way: Yosef was able to elevate his perception and awareness to the point that he could perceive “Gd’s Throne” – that is, the level at which the infinite (Gd) interacts with the Creation.  On that level the spiritual pleasure is so intense that any possible physical pleasure simply pales in comparison; it was from this level that Yosef found the strength to turn away from sin.  And it was from this level that Yosef found the strength to endure the long years of imprisonment.  Finally, it is from this level that Yosef was able to catalyze the flow of blessings from the Divine into the world.

The basic principle behind Sefer Bereishit (the Book of Genesis) is that the activities of the Patriarchs foreshadow the events and the challenges that their descendants will face.  Those of us living in the diaspora and those of us living in Eretz Yisrael are both faced with the same challenge as our forebear Yosef (even though presumably most of us are actually descendants of either Yehudah, Levi or Binyamin) – the challenge of maintaining our spiritual integrity while living in the material world.  How are we to do this?  We are not fortunate enough to have grown up in Ya’akov Avinu’s household, but we have the advantage of having our Gd-given Torah and a 3300-year tradition of understanding of its teachings.  If we steep ourselves in Torah’s wisdom we can experience the kind of spiritual growth that will make us immune to the blandishments of our material culture.  From this basis we can rise to the position of “second to the King” – in close relationship to the King of the universe, and mastery over His creation.