Towards the end of parshas Vayigash we read about Yosef's management of the
Egyptian economy during the devastating seven-year famine. As the famine
intensified, the Egyptian people offered more and more of their own
possessions - ultimately offering themselves - in exchange for food. At one
stage, they retained ownership of their land, but sold their cattle. "They
brought their livestock to Yosef, and Yosef gave them bread in exchange for
the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the donkeys; he
provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock
Among the animals listed in this verse, the sheep are perhaps the most
noteworthy. As we know from parshas Va'eira (Shemos/Exodus 8:22) and
countless Midrashim, Egyptians worshipped sheep. Yet when famine struck,
food prices soared, and the Egyptians peasantry lost everything but their
animals, even these deities became mere barter-fodder used to purchase
grain. Some mefarshim (commentaries) suggest that it is for this reason
alone the Torah went through the trouble of listing the types of animals
the Egyptians exchanged for grain - something that at first glance is of
little impart to us - to emphasize the rapid deterioration of sheep's
status from superhuman creatures to dollar bills. [Divrei Shir]
Still, though, of what importance is it to us whether or not the Egyptians
were quick to dump their gods when the going got tough? Is this merely an
exercise in self-gratification, elevating ourselves and our beliefs by
emphasizing how little we have in common with our pagan neighbours?
Perhaps not. When the Torah warns countless times against avodah-zara
(pagan worship), it is instructing us to understand its underpinnings, and
to ensure our own relationship with Hashem is distant and divorced from
anything remotely similar. Therein lies the lesson.
Little Moishie was walking along the railroad tracks when suddenly he got
his foot caught under one of the railroad ties. He tried to get it out, but
it was jammed tight. As he struggled to free his foot, he suddenly heard a
noise. To his horror, he turned and saw a train approaching. Panic-stricken
he started to pray, "Hashem, please get my foot out of these tracks. I'll
never be bad again. I'll always do what my parents say. I won't bother my
brothers and sisters anymore. And I'll learn Torah whenever I have free
time. Please Hashem just get me out of this one."
Nothing happened; his foot was wedged in. In fact it seemed that the more
he struggled, the tighter it got. He looked up, and saw the train getting
closer! Again he prayed. "Hashem, please get my foot out - I'll make my
berachos loud and clear, and I'll go see my Bubby on the way home from
Yeshiva every day."
Still nothing; his foot was wedged tight. The train was just seconds away.
Little Moishie struggled frantically; the train's horn blared. He tried his
plea one more time. "Hashem please, if you get my foot out of the tracks,
I'll sing along with all the songs at the Shabbos table, and I'll stop
wasting my time on computer games. Just save me!"
Just as the train was about to crush his frail body, Moishie's foot broke
loose and he fell backwards, the train narrowly missing him. Moishie got
up, dusted himself off, looked toward Heaven and said "Hashem - thanks
anyway, but I took care of things myself this time!"
It is noteworthy that the Torah's mention of Egyptians serving sheep as a
god comes at a later time, after they had already gone ahead and sold their
god for food. It is not clear when this occurred, but at some point after
the famine's end, the Egyptians reverted to according superhuman qualities
to their "cherished" animal.
This cycle is one that repeated itself in many forms and on many different
levels throughout history. When people experience difficult times,
individually or communally, we come face-to-face with the limitless power
of Hashem and our own human frailty. These are particularly humbling
experiences, and we must come to terms with our own helplessness and our
total dependence on a higher force. Forced, we do so, with gusto, crying
out to Hashem in our time of need, and acknowledging Him as our Stone and
our Salvation - there is none other! Yet as the crisis thankfully
dissipates, so does this awareness. Our confidence returns, and we once
again find comfort in the deceptive protection of our own competence.
"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef (Shemos 1:8)." We so
easily forget the message of Yosef, who stood before the pagan world and
declared, "It is not from me! G-d will see to Pharaoh's welfare (41:16)."
Even during times of good health, peace and prosperity, we must remember to
attribute our welfare and success to the only One with the power to grant
us these precious blessings. [Based on R' D. Silverberg]
Vulnerability; exposure; susceptibility. These words, and the sensations
they bring, make us uncomfortable. Think about the moment before the doctor
or nurse sticks you with a hypodermic needle. You feel frail, helpless,
exposed. Imagine being under the surgeons scalpel - totally out of control
and totally vulnerable. It's not something we like to imagine, and not
something we like to feel.
We humans like to imagine we're in control. Much of our time on this world
is spent ensuring we are protected, impenetrable to anything that has the
potential to bring us down. Vitamins and vaccinations offer protection from
illness; exercise and good diet slow down the aging process. We take out
insurance policies against our cars, our houses, our lives. (If we can't be
in control of the circumstances, let's at least have a say in the outcome.)
It is not to denigrate taking care of oneself; to the contrary, it is a
great mitzvah. It is the attitude of needing to be in total control that
quickly spirals into avodah zara. Remember, the Egyptians sold their "gods"
before they gave away their land. A Jew doesn't "sell" his G-d to
accommodate his needs.
Have a good Shabbos.
In loving memory of R' Chaim ben R' Moshe Yechiel Uhr, and R' Chaim
Tzvi ben R' Yehoshua. By Mr. and Mrs. S. Farkas.