THE BIG PICTURE Zoominar continues this Tuesday, b”H. You can register at any time by writing to [email protected].
YOSEF’S LIFE WAS boring. It was the pits. After all, he was put into a bor, which is a pit, twice. And regarding the first bor, it says:
Rav Kahana said: Rav Nachman bar Munyumi elucidated in the name of Rebi Tanchum: Why does it say, “The pit was empty and was without water” (Bereishis 37:24)? If the pit was empty, do I not know that it had no water?…[To teach that] there wasn’t any water, but there were snakes and scorpions. (Shabbos 22a)
As in, poisonous snakes and deadly scorpions. How did Yosef survive? By a miracle, which the brothers seemed to have overlooked. Perhaps had they noticed the miracle, they might have reconsidered their decision to sell Yosef. After all, does God do miracles for the evil?
Perhaps though they overlooked the miracle because there is a different meaning to the above statement from the Talmud.
Let’s say a person is dovening Shemonah Esrai and a snake enters the vicinity. Is the person allowed to stop in the middle of their Shemonah Esrai and run to safety? The halachah says no. What about a scorpion? There the halachah is yes, the person can run to safety even if in the middle of their Shemonah Esrai.
The Maharal sees this halachah as more of an analogy. The snake is a reference to the yetzer hara for desirable things, and the scorpion alludes to idol worship. Therefore, the Maharal explains, if a person has thoughts about inappropriate desires during their Shemonah Esrai, they should not stop dovening. Instead, they should force their mind away from their ta’avos—desires, and resume the appropriate focus.
But, continues the Maharal, if a person thinks about idol worship during Shemonah Esrai, God forbid, they must stop immediately. Otherwise they can find themself praying to avodah zarah—idol worship, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.
THE TALMUD SAYS elsewhere that “there is no water except Torah.” Plugging this into the verse above, it would read: the pit was empty and was without Torah. But would that mean? It could mean that when someone goes through emotional upheaval, they lose their connection to Torah. They can’t think straight. They can’t focus. They panic and all of a sudden, the Torah they have learned seems so far away. You see it happen often in life.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the lack of Torah results in a spiritual vacuum that ta’avah and avodah zarah tend to fill. It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden a person in the midst of a crisis has a craving for an ice cream cone, or that they think about joining some new cult. It can mean something more understandable, like yearning for the comfort of a peaceful home, or wondering where God is when you need Him.
Perhaps that was the plan of the brothers. Torah protects a person. Even Elisha ben Abuya, Acher, who became the quintessential heretic was protected by his Torah learning (Chagigah 15a). Certainly Yosef, who was no heretic, could be protected by his, making it difficult for the brothers to carry out their plan.
Therefore, by causing Yosef to become emotionally frantic, which we hear about at the end of this week’s parsha, the brothers broke his connection to Torah and made him spiritually vulnerable. And when they sold him, it probably depressed him as well. As the Arizal says, psychological depression is a function of the Klipos, that reality of impurity in the world, whose goal is to make a person waste life.
But “many are the thoughts of man, but it is the plan of God that prevails.” When it comes to tzaddikim, even the bad that happens to them for is for their ultimate good. The perpetrators may think they have won, but they have only carried out God’s plan that will eventually backfire on them, as it did to Yosef’s brothers.
After all, consider where Yosef was heading. There was no great bor in the world than Mitzrayim. By its very nature and lifestyle, Mitzrayim constricted the light of Torah, and filled the void with nothing but hedonistic desires and a plentitude of idol worship. In short, not a good place at all for a good Jewish boy. How could Yosef be expected to survive that?
Even Ya’akov will wonder the same thing in Parashas Vayigash. But Yosef did not only survive Mitzrayim, he thrived there. Perhaps his being thrown into the pit and thrust into emotional upheaval prepared him for what was coming up. Adversity builds. We fear it, and can’t wait for it to end. But if we’re experiencing it, there is something we’re supposed to learn from it.
THE PRI TZADDIK says something similar with respect to the war with the Greeks. From a historical perspective, oppressing another people was what mighty empires did in those days. From a Torah perspective, God sent the Greeks and created the situation that compelled the Chashmonaim to fight back. In the process, it drew out the miracle of Chanukah.
Part of the problem we have is attributing the bad to God. God is all good, and can only do good. It’s one thing for evil to exist in the world He made, but isn’t it something else for God to actually create that evil, or use it against His own people?
Seemingly yes. But the problem isn’t with God. The problem is with our understanding of good and evil. We tend to oversimplify it, and personalize it. Good is anything we like and agree with, and evil is the opposite. Good has to start off as good and end as good, even though so many times we have seen it start of as bad and end up good, or start off good and end bad.
I used to have a Latvian university professor who would tell us that, as much as we know, we don’t know as much as we think we do. He would say about himself with a Latvian accent, “I don’t know very much, but at least I know I don’t know very much.” I wanted to ask him how he got his job in the end, but obviously that wasn’t his point. And the truth is, he probably knew a lot more than his co-professors who thought they knew more than they did.
People don’t like loose ends. Everything should wrap up nice and neatly like an expensive present. There are people who profess to be atheists or agnostics because they don’t like the idea of having to reign in their immoral activities. But some people are that way because they simply don’t like loose ends, and that’s exactly what you get when believe in God and Divine Providence.
But there’s nothing wrong with loose ends when it comes to God. He doesn’t have any. Everything by Him is all worked out to the last detail. He has perfect and absolute control over all of the chaos (Chullin 7a), and Chanukah reminds us of that. As long as God has everything under control, we can just rely on Him that it will all work out for the good. It may seem unlikely at the time, and even impossible to believe. But if history and Chanukah teaches us anything at all, it is how over time that everything does work out for the good.
THE YEAR WAS 1775, and the place was Valley Forge. George Washington was Commander-in-Chief over the Continental army in the American Revolutionary War against Britain, who were heavily favored to win. The weather was freezing and food was scarce. The situation was bleak.
There was only one Jew in the entire American army. He had escaped the cruelty and humiliation of life as a Jew in Poland. And though conditions as a soldier in Washington’s army were extremely harsh, the promise of living in a free land inspired him.
So did his Chanukiah. His father had sent it with him to do exactly that, and being the first night of Chanukah, he lit it. And, as it burned before him, he was shocked to find that General Washington himself was standing over him, asking about his welfare.
“Why are you crying, soldier? Are you cold?”
Pain and compassion were in his voice. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer. I jumped up, forgot that I was a soldier standing before a General, and said what came from my heart, like a son speaking to his father.
“General Washington,” I said, “I am crying and praying for your victory. And I know that with the help of God we will win. Today they are strong, but tomorrow they will fall because justice is with us. We want to be free in this land . . . They will fall and you will rise!”
General Washington pressed my hand.
“Thank you, soldier,” he said. He sat next to me on the ground, in front of the Menorah.
“What is this candlestick?” he asked.
I told him, “I brought it from my father’s house. The Jews all over the world light candles tonight, on Chanukah, the holiday of the great miracle.”
The Chanukah candles lit up Washington’s eyes, and he asked joyfully, “You are a Jew from the nation of Prophets and you say we will be victorious?!”
“Yes sir,” I answered with conviction. “We will win just like the Maccabees won, for ourselves and for all those who come here after us to build a new land and new lives.”
The General got up and his face was shining. He shook my hand and disappeared in the darkness.
Apparently, the story did not end there. On the contrary, this is what supposedly followed the following year:
I was sitting in my apartment in New York, on Broome Street, and the Chanukah candles were burning in my window. Suddenly, I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and was shocked: my General, President George Washington, was standing in the doorway, in all his glory.
“Behold the wonderful candle. The candle of hope of the Jewish People,” he proclaimed joyously when he saw the Chanukah candles in my window.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “This candle and your beautiful words ignited a light in my heart that night. Soon you will receive a Medal of Honor from the United States of America, together with all of the brave men of Valley Forge. But tonight, please accept this token from me.”
He hung a golden medallion on my chest and shook my hand. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t speak. The President shook my hand again and departed . . .
I came to, as if from a wonderful dream, then I looked at the medallion and saw an etching of a beautiful Chanukah Menorah. Under it was written: “A token of gratitude for the light of your candle—George Washington.”
It’s supposed to be a true story. The question is, is it only a story, or is it a CHANUKAH story? Was the light of the Menorah and the words of the soldier mere inspiration, or in fact a portal to a higher level of reality that ended up impacting the flow of history?
It may not be clear that this was the case in Valley Forge in 1775. But it is clear that this has been the case other times in history, and continues to be true for those who know how to reveal, and not again conceal the Hidden Light of Creation. (From the book, Once Revealed, Twice Concealed, available in Paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon, and PDF format through Thirtysix.org)