Living in Exile
At the end of two full years, Pharaoh had a dream [in which] he was
standing by the [Nile] river. (Bereishis 41:1)
When will the redemption come? I mean, enough is enough already. It is so
frustrating how we have gone from losing 6,000,000 of our people in the
Holocaust, to re-building our nation over the course of the next 70 years,
thank God, and after being away from our land for 2,000 years returning
there, and in spite of several terrible wars, becoming a leader in so many
areas of life, only to be pressured into dismantling so much of what we have
accomplished. What a pain in the historical neck!
I mean, for a while there everything looked so redemption-like. Now it often
feels as if we are slipping back into the depths of exile once again, God
forbid. We seem like a pendulum that has reached the top of its swing, and
is now getting pulled back down by gravity. The energy of momentum can only
override gravity for so long. Hey, did the chance for redemption come and
go, God forbid, and we missed it because we were too distracted by other,
more worldly things? I sure hope not.
That's the way it sure seemed to Yosef in his time. One day his life was
just perfect, and the next thing he knew he was being kidnapped and sold
into slavery by his own brothers! Overnight, he was thrown into the depths
of exile, only to be redeemed shortly thereafter by Pharaoh's chief butcher,
Potiphar, who made him the head of his household. Things were certainly
looking up once again.
But, again, disaster struck. Of all the households over which to become
head, his happened to have a mistress who wanted him, putting his life back
into peril once again. As a result, everyday he came to work his life and
future were at risk, and it wasn't as if he could simply quit his job and
look for another one.
As to be predicted, his situation deteriorated once again. His previous
redemption led to further exile after he rejected his master's wife's
advances, and was forced to bear the brunt of her false accusations. No
stranger to incarceration, he found himself back in jail another time, once
again falsely accused, once again in a pit as a result.
Then, all of a sudden, redemption seemed to knock on Yosef's door once more,
after Divine Providence had Pharaoh's chief baker and cup bearer thrown into
the same jail as Yosef. They dreamed dreams that disturbed them, but which
seemed to lack interpretation by everyone except for Yosef, giving him an
opportunity to enter their lives, and perhaps, for one of them to become his
ticket to freedom.
But, apparently, it was not to be. Though everything had worked according to
plan-the baker was executed and the wine steward was returned to his post as
Yosef had foreseen-he was not recalled. There was no mention of his deed or
his innocence before Pharaoh, and though the wine steward returned to his
previous life, Yosef remained in his present one. Days become months, and
months became years, until two of them, with little hope for freedom, had
Then, all of a sudden, there was a knock on the door, and faster than Yosef
had been put into jail, he was removed from it. Not only was he freed, but
he was pampered until he was fit to stand before the king of Egypt, who,
within a short while, made him Vice President of Egypt. The transformation
from being powerless to powerful happened so quickly that he must have
thought he was dreaming again.
All of a sudden, it all made sense. Not every piece of a puzzle is crucial
for seeing the bigger picture, but some are so important that without them,
it is as if nothing had been done to assemble the puzzle until they arrived.
That had certainly been the case in Yosef's life, until the most important
piece of his puzzle finally showed up, 12 years after his world had begun to
fall apart: mikeitz.
History works kind of like DNA. Most people do not look everyday in the
mirror for gray hairs, or aging features. Rather, one day, while looking in
the mirror, they may happen to notice them. They just sort of spring up, all
of a sudden, and very often, ahead of schedule, as far as we are concerned.
But not as far as our body clocks are concerned. Amazingly, from conception,
when we are still too small to be seen even through most microParashas
scopes, our body clocks start ticking with instructions that will be
fulfilled throughout our physical lives, including at what age our hair
should turn gray, or our faces should wrinkle, etc. It always happens right
on schedule, our DNA schedule, though early for us, because we do not desire
to become old, and certainly not to become feeble and die.
Personally, I still think young. I was always athletic, and barely gained a
pound of weight, no matter what I ate, for about 20 straight years. Then,
around the age of 30, things started to change. My metabolism, which was
always about average, began to slow down. I remember standing around one day
with some colleagues of mine as we all bemoaned the fact that our eating
habits were becoming more apparent by the month in the form of extra weight.
So, I started to exercise once again, and sure enough, most of the weight
came off over a few weeks. However, I began to notice that if I did not keep
up my exercising, the weight came right back, especially if I ate well over
Shabbos, week after week. It was pressure I had never to live with before,
and it was becoming a little frustrating.
Ten years later, the situation did not improve, but got worse as my
metabolism slowed down even more, and gray hair began to appear. YIKES! I
have never been overly concerned about my appearance, not more than the
halachah and Mussar says men should be, but gray hair meant something: I was
Furthermore, no longer did exercise do very much to take off the extra
weight. And, though I could work myself up to a pretty good exercise
schedule, I usually paid for it some time later on, like the next morning
getting out of bed. Not only was I losing hair, but I was losing flexibility
as well, and things began to hurt, like my back, for example.
The old gray mare, she aint what she used to be, aint what she used to be, etc.
All of this comes to me as a surprise, until I recall my age. Unlike with
most journeys in life, this one did not come with a pre-printed schedule of
events to tell me where to be and by what time. The journey of life seems to
be a secret to everyone except to God; the best we can do is approximate
what will happen to us and by when, but you can be sure that when it comes
to bodily changes and aging, there will always bound to be surprises.
As Yosef found out, that is true inside the body, and outside the body as
well. Every event that occurred to him from the moment he was conceived
until the last one he breathed on earth, was carefully orchestrated by
Heaven, to occur at a precise time, to have a precise affect on Yosef, the
world around him, and all the generations to follow him. It's just that no
one ever gave him the schedule to follow, for that would have been a
violation of the laws of free-will.
And, each time his life turned a corner, it was a keitz, a predestined
moment in time by which his life was meant to turn a corner. He might have
thought to keep walking straight, so-to-speak, and that is why the event
caught him by surprise or seemed abrupt. But, had he seen the script of his
life, he would have been ready to turn that corner in concert with history
and Divine Providence. He would have ready for each keitz.
Of course, we rarely are. This is because, for the sake of free-will, we are
not shown the scripts of our lives, and therefore, we tend to be impacted
upon rather than be impactful. The average person works very hard to
maintain status quos, and then has to do a lot of fancy footwork to recover
from situations that upset them. If they don't, then they end up living out
of sync with reality, and there are plenty of people walking around doing that.
This is not the Torah way. The Torah way teaches that the only status quo
there is in history is the will of God, and His masterful plan for Creation,
of which we are just one of billions of parts. Whither goes the will of God,
goes man as well, and history after him. Knowing this makes all the
difference in the world, and the next one as well, for the will of God is
extremely dynamic, and we have to be as well.
Let me give you an example. Recently, someone of relative prominence where
he used to live decided to make aliyah. As to be expected, even though it
was known that such a decision was destined to happen one day, when it was
finally announced, it seemed to come earlier than most people had expected,
so it caught the attention of many.
This led to a local interview, during which the person expressed his
opinions about the importance of making aliyah, and of not remaining in the
Diaspora too much longer, especially given the direction of the current
American government. In retrospect, some comments might not have been
appropriate for such a wide audience, but the gist of the message was that
the exile is coming to an end, and we Jews had better watch out and be ready
BOOM! As you can imagine, the person's comments were not warmly welcomed by
much of the community he was leaving behind, and the reaction was swift and
furious. If anyone took the person's comments to heart in a positive way,
they were not the ones responding, because the feedback was quite negative,
including from rabbis who addressed the issue from their pulpits, basically
condemning the comments.
In reviewing the entire episode, I can't help but to relate to the person's
comments, and to be nervous about the reaction. Personally, I might have
been a little more diplomatic about how I would have said the same thing,
but the basic content is what I believe in. But, the reaction? All I hear
are people who are really saying:
"Look, if you want to make aliyah and reject the United States as
your home, then that is your problem. But don't make it seem as if you are
doing it for reasons that affect us too, as if by not following in your
footsteps or worrying about the future, we are endangering ourselves and our
families! We have a status quo to protect!"
That may be. But what about the keitzin? If you are so committed to
maintaining the status quo of exile, and insist on running history your own
way, then how will you not snap when God makes history turn the corner, and
quickly. Isn't that what happened in Spain in 1492, in Europe in 1942, and
just about everywhere else in-between? Will we ever learn not to dig in too
deep in golus?
I think that is one of the reasons why Yosef was put through all that he
went through, and his father, Ya'akov as well. It was to make precisely this
point. When it comes to the will of God, and how He exercises it through out
history, you have to be what we say in Hebrew: gamish-flexible. Exile is
exile, no matter how comfortable it can become. Live it as if it can end at
any time, and in the worst of ways. It's the only way to safely navigate
those historical changes of direction, and to be impactful, as opposed to
only being impacted upon.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.