Wednesday, December 13, 2006

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.[1] 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 this was his desire, the distress of Yosef was brought upon him.[2] We usually interpret this Midrash as referring to the physical struggles that Ya'akov endured during the course of 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, Esav, 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. Shabbos is not only a time conducive to connecting to God because we are not distracted by our weekday activities. It is spiritually a higher level day on which the entire world is truly closer to God than during the days of the week. As such, Shabbos is also 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, Esav, 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, Esav 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 tosfos Shabbos/an addition to Shabbos. The Midrash says that this is why Ya'akov Avinu was prepared to meet Esav only after Yosef was born. With Yosef he was able to overcome the this-worldliness that Esav 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, enables us to accept Shabbos early.
[1] Breishis chapt. 37
[2] Breishis R. 84:3

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