Friday, January 01, 2016
Shemos 5631 First Ma'amar
“וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב ... /These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’akov …” (Shmos 1:1) The Sfas Emes explains the significance of the word שְׁמוֹת/names. He also explains why the Torah tells us that they came to Egypt with Ya’akov.
In Koheles (7:1) we find, “טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב .../A (good) name is better than good oil …” The Midrash on this pasuk says that Chanania and Misha’el represent people with a good name. They were thrown into a fiery furnace and were saved. Nadav and Avihu represent good oil since as priests they were anointed with the special anointing oil. They were killed by burning. A good name is clearly better than good oil. Why is this so? What is the significant difference between Chanania and Misha’el on the one hand and Nadav and Avihu on the other?
The Midrash is teaching us that good oil alludes to someone who, like Nadav and Avihu, receives his great stature from Heaven. He did not work for it. He did not earn it. Nadav and Avihu were born into the priesthood. A good name, on the other hand, is the result of hard work. A person’s good reputation can be measured by how far it has traveled. The greater his good reputation, the farther his name has traveled, the harder he worked to achieve it. The Midrash is teaching that a person’s received greatness will not save him but a person’s earned greatness will save him.
The children of Israel were not on the level of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Our forefathers were above nature. They saw God in everything. The physical world presented no barrier to them. Last week, in the first ma’amar on parshas VaYechi, the Sfas Emes explained why the Torah uses the word, וַיְחִי/He lived, referring to Ya’akov’s stay in Egypt rather than the more usual וַיֵּשֶׁב/He dwelt, or וַיְהִי/He was. The Torah is stressing that Ya’akov “lived” in the ultimate sense of being attached to the Source of all life.
Ya’akov taught his children that even though they were not on his level, they could see God in everything, too, even if they could not experience it, by working on their faith. The key is to believe that God is in everything regardless of how things appear to be. Through hard work the Godly light within all of Creation became revealed to them. In this sense, their mission (and ours as well) was to reveal and spread the Godly enlightenment specifically within nature.
Egypt was one of the most immoral places on Earth. A lot of hard work indeed was required to come to the realization that the physical reality of their surroundings was simply a screen masking the light of God. This is the deeper meaning of the “backbreaking work” that was required of the children of Israel in Egypt. Their revelation of God, was something that they earned through hard work.
The word שְׁמוֹת/names in the first pasuk of our parsha represents this hard work since it suggests the good name that results from hard work. The Torah makes a point of telling us, at the very beginning of their descent to Egypt, that through their hard work the children of Ya’akov reached a level of seeing the Godliness in the physical. This is why the Torah tells us that they came to Egypt with Ya’akov. They descended to Egypt attached to the spiritual level represented by Ya’akov. In fact, the pasuk can be understood as telling us that their names (representing their reputation – their external relationship with the world around them) went down to Egypt whereas their essence stayed attached to Ya’akov.
This is the meaning of the Midrash which says, “God said, ‘The names of the tribes are more beloved to me than the anointing oil used to anoint priests and kings.” (Koheles R. 7:1:2) Their names represented their personal accomplishments. God loves personal achievement.
In our current exile as well, we have the ability, through faith, to reveal the hidden Godliness in everything around us. The prophet Zechariah, referring to the redemption from this exile, said, “... בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה ה' אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד/…On that day God will be One and His Name will be One.” (Zechariah 14:9) The Zohar explains the significance of God being one and His name being one. God’s oneness is not affected by exile. Nothing affects God. However, in the exile His oneness is hidden.
God’s name is a way of describing God’s influence in the world. His name being one refers to His revelation. When will His name be one? When will His oneness be revealed? When our belief that God is hidden in everything including the exile is complete, He will be revealed. May we merit it speedily!