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Blog - Torah Insights

In the Face of Suffering - שמות

Bbush.jpegIn the Face of Suffering

At the burning bush G-d called upon Moses to accept the incredible task of leading the Jewish people, from slavery to liberation. Moses hesitated to accept the task, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he said to G-d. G-d replied: “For I will be with you”, Moses, would not go alone. G-d would be with him every step of the way.  

Moses understood that before he could seek to influence Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, he first had to influence the Jewish people. He had to impress upon them that G-d, the G-d of their fathers, was about to take them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Moses sensed that Influencing the Jews, inspiring them to believe in the imminent redemption, would not be easy.  

And Moses said to God, "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13)

Moses understood that the first question the Jewish people would ask immediately upon hearing that the G-d of their fathers was about to redeem them, was what is His name? The various names of G-d represent the various ways G-d expresses Himself; kindness, judgement, compassion, etc. Moses, understood that the Jews would immediately ask “what is His name?”. How did G-d behave in a way that  caused the Jewish people to suffer so terribly for so many decades? What is His name? What is the “name”, the attribute, the justification, for G-d to be silent in the face of such terrible human suffering? Moses understood that before the Jews could accept G-d’s promise for redemption, they must first understand how and why G-d allowed this suffering.

God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)," and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'"

What is the meaning of the name “I will be what I will be”? And how does this name address Moses’s question of what name would allow for so much Jewish suffering?

Rashi explains:

“Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)”: “I will be” with them in this predicament “what I will be” I will be with them in their subjugation by other kingdoms.

According to Rashi, G-d told Moses that the question of how G-d allows so much suffering, is indeed the most powerful question that can be asked. Yet, to be a Moses, to bring a message of hope to the people, to lead them to physical and spiritual liberation, one does not need to know the answer to the question. Moses must convey to the Jewish people, not an explanation for the suffering, but rather a far more powerful insight: that G-d is with us in our suffering. That he has not abandoned us. That he is present with us even when his presence is hidden.

Indeed, the Jewish people have survived so much pain and suffering not because they had a philosophical explanation to how G-d allows so much suffering. We have survived because we knew, because we sensed, that we are not alone. G-d is always with us.

Each of us is a Moses. We will each experience a time in life when we are called upon to offer comfort and encouragement to someone who is suffering. Perhaps the lesson from G-d’s words to Moses is that when when a child, a spouse, a stranger or friend is suffering, we should not  seek to rationalize, explain, justify, philosophize or blame. The most important thing we can do is, just like G-d Himself, to be present. To help the person in pain feel that he or she is not alone. To help them appreciate that G-d is with them. And, that, we too, seek to emulate G-d, and do the best we can to be present with them.

 

The Book of Creation - ויחי

book.jpegThe Book of Creation

We are about to conclude the reading of the book of Genesis, the first book of the five books of Moses. We have traveled through the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Joseph and his brothers, and we finally read of how the family of Jacob settles in Egypt. Jacob passes away and Joseph reaffirms his commitment to forgive and sustain his brothers. We have arrived at the climax, we are waiting for a verse that will capture the heart of all we have learned from our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Yet the book concludes with a somber tone:

And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt.

Why end the book with this mournful verse? By simply switching the order of the last two verses in the book, the Torah could have concluded the book with a powerful message of hope:

And Joseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, "God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here."

What better way to end the book of Genesis that the promise of redemption that would sustain the faith and hope of the Jewish people through the bitter slavery? Why then, does the Torah choose to conclude the book with Joseph's death in Egypt?

To understand the conclusion of the book we must first examine what is the theme of the first book of the Torah, what message is the entire book conveying, what is the overarching theme of the book?

In one word, the book of Genesis is about creation.

The book of Genesis is the story of creation. It begins with the G-d creating a physical world to be a home for the human being, and then, continues with the stories of human beings striving to reciprocate by sanctifying the world and creating a home for G-d. Genesis tells the story of a family who understands that the heaven and earth and all therein were created for the purpose of being sanctified, that the world in all its diversity yearns to be connected with the Divine oneness its source.

Story leads to story until we reach the climax of the book’s message. In its final verses Genesis tells of the creation of a spiritual haven, of a home to holiness, not in Israel but in Egypt. Not only during Joseph's lifetime, when he ruled the land, but also after his death.

Even in Egypt, at the time considered the most morally debased location on earth, the Jew has the power to be like Joseph, to rule over Egypt, to resist its temptations and eventually transform its environment.

Thus the Torah concludes with the passing of Joseph and his placement in a coffin in Egypt, teaching us, that even while being away from the land of Israel, Joseph’s bones, his essence, power and inspiration is with us.

This is the core message of the book: from the description of the magnificent creation, to the story of Joseph ruling the mighty Egypt, all of the book of Genesis carries the same message: no land too dark, no culture too distant,, no circumstance too foreign, for the holiness. By their example, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs demonstrate to the future Jewish people that they too can create holiness within the mundane, imbuing the material with meaning and spirituality. 

 

Jacob's Distress - ויגש

p.jpgJacob's Distress

After twenty two years of mourning the loss of his beloved son, Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive and well, and was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob wasted no time and together with his family, he began the journey to Egypt. Jacob was filled with conflicting emotions. On one hand he was about to spend the best years of life, in peace and tranquility, reunited with his beloved son, Joseph. On the other hand, the journey to Egypt was the beginning of what, decades later, would become the terrible enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.

The Torah relates:

And God said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am."

And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.

Rashi explains that G-d’s reassuring words to Jacob were in response to Jacob’s concern about traveling to Egypt:

Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt: [God encouraged him] because he was distressed at being compelled to leave the Holy Land.

A careful read of Rashi reveals a discrepancy in the emotion described; while the Torah describes the emotion as fear (“do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”) Rashi describes the feeling as one of distress (“he was distressed”). According to Rashi, then, Jacob was feeling distress and G-d told him  not to fear. Yet G-d did not tell Jacob not to be distressed.

Rashi teaches a powerful lesson on how Jacob was to approach the onset of the exile, as well as how we should approach our own exile; we must not fear the exile and it’s difficulties, we must, however, be distressed about it. We must never make peace with the exile and it’s spiritual and physical challenges. We must always remember that the exile and it’s challenges are not our natural state of being.. In fact, these two components, not fearing the exile and experiencing distress from exile, are interdependent: the only way we can immunize ourselves against the negative effect of exile and its challenges (“do not fear”), is if we understand that our true identity is at home only in our own homeland.

The same is true when we experience a figurative “exile”, when we feel trapped by internal or external challenge, when we are frightened by our current state of being and wish we could improve ourselves. We must remember that the challenge and difficulty are but temporary.  The negativity we are experiencing does not define us. The most important tool of spiritual survival is to remember that we will overcome and return to our true selves, to our soul, to our homeland.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 30 Vayigash 3)

 

Dreams of Hope - מקץ

J.jpgDreams of Hope 

Joseph was appointed to be the viceroy of Egypt because he alone was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Joseph explained that the dreams foretold that seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine were to come. Joseph suggested that Pharaoh appoint officers to collect food during the years of plenty in order to sustain the land of Egypt during the seven years of famine.

Pharaoh was so taken by the interpretation of the dreams that he appointed Joseph, an unknown prisoner from a foreign land, to be the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself:   

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you.

You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you." (Genesis 41:40)

The story seems strange. Why would Pharaoh appoint Joseph as leader, instead of Pharaoh’s government ministers and agencies? Even if Pharaoh liked Joseph’s interpretation, why could he not have accepted Joseph's advice while instructing his own government agents to implement the policy?

Egypt was a pagan society which believed that everything on earth was controlled by the pagan gods. According to Egyptian philosophy, the human being was bound to the will of the gods, trapped by destiny and had no power over his own future and moral choices. In Egyptian culture, the circumstances to which one born, was where he would forever remain, bound by the gods of the natural forces. Thus, Egypt did not allow for social mobility, freedom or moral free choice.

From the perspective of the Egyptian professional dream interpreters, if the gods were planning seven years of famine there was nothing the human being could do to save society. If the gods of nature were about to bring hardship and pain then the people would have no choice but to accept the suffering.

Which is why Pharaoh was so taken by Joseph.

Joseph explained to Pharaoh that G-d informing him of the seven years of famine was a Divine call to action. G-d wanted the people to take action, make the right choices and prepare for the future. Joseph received the promotion because Pharaoh understood  that Joseph’s interpretation and his policy suggestion were so foreign to Egyptian culture that only a Hebrew, foreign to Egyptian philosophy and culture, could succeed in preparing for the seven years of famine. Pharaoh understood that there was no one in all his kingdom that could embrace the optimism and proactive approach that came from Joseph’s perspective. Only Joseph could infuse the Egyptians with the spirit of hope and the commitment to action.

Pharaoh's dreams served a more profound purpose than just to help the Egyptians  survive the economic downturn. The dreams and their interpretations were supposed to be the first step in changing Egypt’s perspective. Human choice matters. G-d gives us the freedom to choose the path we take. Without the gift of free choice there can be no freedom and no morality.

***

Each year the story of Joseph, the quintessential optimist, the dreamer who never loses hope for a better future, is read on Chanukah. It is the spirit of Joseph which inspired the Maccabees to take action, to be hopeful and to persevere in their efforts to fight for their religious freedom.

May the flames of the Chanukah candles inspire hope and optimism, which, in turn, fuel our actions, to fill the earth with the light of goodness and kindness.  

 

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