Friday, December 28, 2012

VaYechi 5631 Fourth Ma'amar

After Ya'akov requests of his son Yosef to bury him at the burial site of his forefathers he asks him to take an oath, "ויאמר השבעה לי וישבע לו וישתחו ישראל על ראש המטה/(Ya'akov) said, 'Swear to me.'  (Yosef) swore to him and Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed." (Breishis 47:31)  Two questions arise.  Why did Ya'akov find it necessary for Yosef to take an oath?  Surely Ya'akov trusted that Yosef would do everything in his power to fulfill his father's request.  Secondly, what is the connection between the oath and bowing at the head of the bed?  Why are these two events in the same pasuk?  This leads to an additional question.  Why did Ya'akov bow at the head of the bed?

Rashi on this pasuk explains the head of the bed represents the fact that all of Ya'akov's children remained true to their upbringing.  Even Yosef who was a king (the head of Ya'akov's bed) in Egypt and was even previously captured and lived among gentiles remained true to his forefathers and his traditions. 

How did Ya'akov know that Yosef was able to internalize the traditions and pass them on to his own progeny even as he led a life as king in the house of Pharaoh?

Ya'akov knew this from the oath.  How so?  What is the significance of an oath?  Is it simply a verbal commitment?  The Chiddushei HaRim teaches us that an oath is much more than that.  Oath in Hebrew – שבועה – has the same root as the word for seven – שבעה.  We each have seven primary character traits.  An oath implies bringing all of the seven primary character traits – ones entire being – to bear upon a decision, a commitment.  An oath is therefore a very serious matter in Jewish tradition.  Both Ya'akov and Yosef understood this and took it very seriously. 

Ya'akov Avinu wanted to know that his descendents would remain true to his traditions and deserve the redemption.  The oath was the mechanism that Ya'akov used both for understanding Yosef's essence and for passing on to him his own spiritual essence that allowed him to remain true to God even in Egypt.  Through the oath Yosef revealed his total essence to Ya'akov. 

Chazal teach us that Yosef inherited Ya'akov and that it was in his merit that we were redeemed from Egypt.  Chazal[1] teach us that because Yosef resisted the temptation of Potiphar's wife, he influenced the entire nation to refrain from illicit relations.  Chazal continue that in the merit of this we were redeemed.  Furthermore, Chazal[2] explain the pasuk, "הים ראה וינס .../The sea saw and fled …"  What did the sea see?  Chazal teach us that the sea saw the bones of Yosef.  Yosef fled from Potiphar's wife so the sea fled from his bones.

The Zohar[3] states that when God foretold to Ya'akov that, "ויוסף ישית ידו על עיניך/and Yosef will place his hand upon your eyes," He was telling him that Yosef would be his heir.  The Sfas Emes explains that this is referring to inheriting Ya'akov spiritually.  The mechanism for this inheritance was the oath.  Through the oath Yosef opened his entire essence before Ya'akov.  He was able to cleave to Ya'akov with his whole being.  He was thus able to receive the aspect of Ya'akov which enabled him to live in Egypt without being affected by Egyptian society.

When Ya'akov understood that he had a spiritual heir who would be able to influence the nation for good even as they lived in decadent Egypt, he realized that his bed was complete – his progeny would continue his traditions – and he bowed "at the head of the bed".

[1] VaYikra R. 32:5
[2] Mechilta Beshalach Masechta 2,3
[3] Zohar 1:226a

Friday, December 07, 2012

VaYeishev 5631 First Ma'amar

This week's parsha relates the story of how Yosef was kidnapped and separated from his father Ya'akov for 22 years.  The Midrash says that after his struggles with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem, Ya'akov Avinu wanted to live a life of peace and calm.  This was not to be.  Specifically because of this desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him.[1]  We usually understand this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured throughout his life.  However, the Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is actually referring to Ya'akov Avinu's spiritual struggles culminating in his final spiritual struggle represented by Yosef.

The difficulty for Ya'akov in his journey to and travails with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem was that these troubles took him away from a life of holiness in a place which was conducive for connecting with God, sheltered from the ugliness of the outside world.   Metaphorically, Ya'akov's departure from the house of his father Yitzchak, all that happened to him during his exile, and his subsequent return, parallel the relationship between Shabbos and the days of the week.  Intuitively, it is easy to understand that Shabbos is a time conducive to connecting with God and holiness since we are not distracted by our weekday activities.  It is also spiritually a higher level day on which the entire world is truly closer to God than during the days of the week.  More than a holy day, Shabbos is a concept representing a certain level of closeness to God.

Before Ya'akov went to Lavan, he was on a level of Shabbos in his relationship with God.  Just as Shabbos is separate from the days of the week so to Ya’akov was completely separate from anything worldly.  His efforts with Lavan, Eisav, and Shechem represented a descent into the physical world, a descent from a level of complete separation from the distractions of the world around him, a level of Shabbos, into a level of the days of the week.  Ya'akov needed to work hard, paralleling the work of the days of the week, to maintain his connection to God even as he lived in Lavan's house with its accent on the physical world.  The beginning of this week's parsha suggests Ya'akov's return to a level of Shabbos, "וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב .../Ya'akov dwelt ..." (Breishis 37:1)  The first word of the parsha, וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelt, comes from the same root as the word Shabbos.

The difficulties that Ya'akov experienced with Lavan, Eisav and Dina were an attempt to separate him from God.  Living a life of serenity, of Godliness, even in the physical world is the ultimate desire of the righteous.  It means spreading an awareness of God in the physical world, a place were He is normally hidden.  It means bringing the level of Shabbos into the physical world.  This concept is symbolized by Yosef.  This is the deeper meaning of the distress of Yosef mentioned in the Midrash.  How so?  The word Yosef means to add.  The strength of Yosef was the ability to spread an awareness of God in the physical world.  If Ya'akov Avinu was on a Shabbos level of attachment to God, then Yosef, the Sfas Emes explains, was תּוֹסְפוֹת שַׁבָּת/an addition to Shabbos.  Rashi cites the Midrash that Ya'akov Avinu waited for Yosef to be born before he was prepared to meet Eisav.  With Yosef he was able to overcome the this-worldliness that Eisav represented.

Shabbos is made for connecting to God.  We learn from Ya'akov that we can live a life in which we reveal God during our daily activities as well.  We do this by cultivating a desire that the result of our activities be a greater awareness of God.  Accepting Shabbos early symbolizes this work because when we accept Shabbos early we are actually bringing the holiness of the Shabbos into what would otherwise be a part of the week.  Working to raise our weekday experiences to a Shabbos level, essentially yearning for Shabbos during the week, makes it easier for us to accept and experience Shabbos early.  May we merit it!

[1] Breishis R. 84:3