LIVE TODAY TO LIVE TOMORROW/Earning Our Slice of Eternity
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, we read about Yosef being
catapulted from a miserable Egyptian dungeon to the highest office in the
land-all in the twinkling of an eye. He secured this exalted position not
only by interpreting Pharoah's dream correctly but by offering Pharoah
incisive advice on how to deal with the impending years of famine. He
advised the king to appoint a 'wise and discerning' man to implement a
nationwide plan that would preserve the country's vast grain resources
during the years of abundance. Those supplies would enable the population to
survive the subsequent years of famine.
Yosef's advice so impressed Pharaoh, he immediately appointed Yosef to fill
this critically important post, announcing that he couldn't hope to find
anyone wiser and more discerning.
Pharaoh's behavior elicits an immediate question: Why single out the
attributes of being "wise" and "discerning" for the task of securing Egypt's
future by storing the overflow of its produce during the seven years of
prosperity? This task would seem to require other talents, such as
superlative organizational and managerial skills.
Furthermore, what did Pharaoh see in their brief initial encounter that so
convinced him so that Yosef was 'wise and discerning? Would it not have been
more prudent for him to research other potential candidates before bestowing
upon him such supreme honor and responsibility?
The commentaries explain that excellent administration skills were not the
primary qualities necessary to succeed in such a gargantuan undertaking.
Pharaoh knew that in the years of plenty, it would not be possible for the
average person to visualize the devastating poverty that would soon consume
the land. When resources are free and plentiful, it is only natural to
squander and splurge.
Yet the message conveyed in his dream clearly told Pharaoh that the only way
the nation's survival could be assured in the face of a devastating famine,
would be by squirreling away every available grain during the years of
plenty. Only one who would have the clarity of vision to see beyond the
prosperity of the "here and now" would be capable of implementing the master
plan. That plan required that every kernel of grain be accounted for, even
in times of prosperity when people tend to be careless with their resources.
Success or failure depended upon how truly wise and discerning the person in
command would be. It depended upon an ability to detach from the present and
stay focused on a vision of the future. Yosef demonstrated this ability by
his very demeanor. He had not lost his aristocratic bearing in the squalor
and misery of his incarceration-even after twelve years in the filth of an
underground pit .
How had he survived such an ordeal? Was it by clinging to hope? Simply
hoping that he would one day be released and exonerated would not have
shielded an ordinary person from the devastating impact of victimhood that
would be the natural side effects of such an ordeal.
Yet Yosef exhibited no such symptoms. Immediately upon his release, he stood
before Pharaoh with a regal bearing. He interpreted Pharaoh's dreams while
declaring Hashem's omniscience. Such a feat was only possible if during his
incarceration he had lived and breathed the freedom he was certain Hashem
would send his way.
The commentaries develop this theme further. On a spiritual level, our own
existence is akin to Yosef's imprisonment. Our souls are incarcerated within
the temporary prison walls of our transient bodies. During our lifetime, we
have opportunity to accrue mitzvos and good deeds, knowing these will be the
only source of sustenance for our souls in the world to come.
These are truly our 'years of plenty'. Yet we dilly-dally along life's
journey, entertaining ourselves with the myriad distractions that life has
to offer. We intuitively realize how precious time is, yet inexplicably we
postpone and delay our obligations. We squander the most precious gift of
time knowing all the while that we will one day have to endure the
consequences-years of famine when all we have for sustenance are the seeds
we planted today.
Were we as 'wise and discerning" as Yosef, what a difference it would make
in how we conducted our affairs!
The Chofetz Chaim provides a beautiful parable to illustrate the wisdom and
discernment we need in this world to ensure that we have an eternal source
of sustenance in the hereafter.
A successful businessman decided to treat himself to a luxury cruise on a
private yacht for his 50th birthday. As he stepped aboard the vessel bound
for the Caribbean Islands, the cares and worries of his financial empire
melted away. As nightfall approached, the boat was moving at full throttle
through an archipelago of small islands that marks the entrance of the
Caribbean ocean. The fellow lay back on the deck, enjoying the night breeze.
Suddenly, the boat smashed into a reef that the captain had failed to
detect, and the stern instantly split apart. The impact of the crash threw
the businessman into the water. He began swimming, hoping he would somehow
reach an inhabited island before his strength ebbed away.
Dawn brought a stunning sunrise but no hint of the shore. He kept swimming
through the day. The sun beat down on his head and exhaustion and fatigue
overtook him. Before nightfall, he spied the outline of an island far ahead.
As he drew close he saw a royal delegation descending upon the beach, as if
preparing to welcome him. As he stepped out of the water, two attendants
donned him with velvet robes and he was escorted to a royal palace, amidst
the cheers and delight of the islands inhabitants. He was waited upon hand
and foot. Clearly they had assumed he was their long lost king!
No longer able to contain himself after a couple of months, he shared the
secret of his true identity with the prime minister. The minister gazed at
him, astonished. "Don't you know that in our island the tradition is that
whoever is washed ashore becomes our king for one year?" he explained.
"And what happens after a year?" asked the king. "Well," the minister said,
"after a year, we escort you back to the beach and we place you into a small
wooden boat, casting you back to the ocean from where you came!"
The poor king was aghast. "'Do you mean that after a year I am just sent out
to sea to die?" he asked incredulously. "'Yes," the prime minister answered.
"What do you suggest I do?" the king asked.
" It is simple," said the minister. "Only two miles south, southwest of this
island lies an uninhabited island. Since you are the king, you can do
whatever you want. Ship out to the island servants, maidservants,
construction materials, plants, fruits and all that is necessary for a new
The king assiduously applied himself to the task. At daybreak each morning,
he oversaw a small army of engineers and craftsmen who boarded boats and
journeyed out to the island with shiploads of materials and supplies. At the
end of the year, a solemn procession accompanied him down to the beach. Many
of the islands inhabitants were crying as he stepped into the simple boat
that would whisk him away. Over the course of the year, they had gotten to
know the king and loved him dearly. Yet the "king's" heart was singing. He
was leaving these people behind but the destination that awaited him was
beautiful and secure.
At life's inception, we too are washed "ashore" and are indulged for many
years in a loving and supporting environment. But as our faculties develop,
we question the meaning of our existence. It takes a 'wise and discerning'
heart to perceive the world of eternity that lies beyond the borders of our
daily existence, and to understand how to fully utilize the present in order
to earn our slice of eternity.
Wishing you a delightful Shabbos and a Freilichen Chanukah.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.