The “temperature” drops significantly from the end of last week’s parsha to the beginning of this one. Last week ended with Yosef appeasing his brothers, and spending time with his grandchildren. There was such a feeling of hope because Yosef had promised his brothers that God would eventually bring them back to Eretz Yisroel.
Parashas Shemos begins after all of the brothers have died. There is a “new” king in town who doesn’t even “remember” Yosef and all that he had done for Egypt. All the peace and prosperity have melted away and left behind deadly oppression. The Torah is setting the stage for geulah, but through a minefield of exile.
Every sefer of the Torah from Shemos onward picks up where the previous one left off, more or less. The last brother to have died was Levi in 2332 (1428 BCE), Yosef having died 23 years earlier in 2309. Since the oppression began the year after the last brother died, and the Jewish people went down to Egypt in 2238, the gap between Sefer Bereishis and Sefer Shemos is 94 years, almost a century. Why the big skip?
Because those were the good times, and the Torah is not interested in the good times. If the Torah was primarily a history book, it would be. But it is not, at least not first and foremost. First and foremost, it is a book about exile and redemption, how to avoid the former and leave it when you haven’t, nationally and personally.
From our perspective, it is usually the opposite. We’d rather focus on the good times and forget about the bad ones. It’s all part of our anti-pain campaign, which is normal. We are made for pleasure, so it is only natural to want to avoid anything that interferes with it. We know expressions like, “No pain, no gain,” but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying to gain without pain, some even hoping that “cheaters” can in fact prosper, at least on some occasions.
They can’t, because even when they “win,” they lose. God made sure of that. The evilest of people is built the same way the best of people are, with an inherent need for validation that comes only from being one’s true self. No one can be truly happy if they are not truly happy with themself.
This does not mean that evil people do not know pleasure. Clearly, they do. It does not mean that evil people can’t have fun. Again, clearly, they do. But as we all know, physical pleasure is most enjoyed when accompanied by psychological contentment, and though you can steal the former you can’t fake the latter. The soul knows if a person is good or bad, and never stops telling the person which one they are.
Okay, so that means that Hitler, ysv”z, in actuality was a miserable person. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from murdering six million plus Jews. If anything, it pushed him to do it. And though Pharaoh may have never really been able to fully enjoy all of his luxuries, that may have made it easier for him to be vicious against his perceived enemy. People who hate themselves find it much easier to hate others.
THAT IS TRUE. But it is also Hashgochah Pratis. Evil can exist, rise up, and hurt others only because of Divine Providence, as Yosef reminded us at the end of last week’s parsha:
But Yosef said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? You intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” (Bereishis 50:19-20)
If an evil dictator, leader, boss, or even just another person ever hurts someone, it is Hashgochah Pratis. It just looks as if they have independent power to do it because they seem to be able to carry out their evil plans. But there are lots of people in the world who want to do evil but are prevented from succeeding because of Divine Providence. If they succeed, God forbid, God let them.
A bad guy’s miserableness is what makes them “eligible” for God’s plan to inflict someone. As the Gemora says, “merit happens through the meritorious, and bad through the unworthy” (Shabbos 32a). So if evil people seem to be on the rise, you have to wonder if God is up to something that might be bad for others.
When it comes to personal fulfillment and inner happiness, the basic rule of thumb is that the more inner happiness a person has—personal redemption—the less outer happiness a person “needs.” As the Mishnah teaches, “Who is a happy person? One who is satisfied with their portion” (Pirkei Avos 4:1). Large or small, because for an innerly happy person a large portion could just as well be a small one, and a small one is a large one as far as they are concerned. As Ya’akov told Eisav, “I always have what I need.”
After thousands of years, mankind as a whole has come to realize that money does not buy happiness. It can “buy” pleasures and a whole lot of fun, but it cannot buy happiness. It can “buy” people and countless distractions, but it cannot buy happiness. Rich or poor, the only way to “buy” happiness is to do the work and stick with the program of personal development, of being a Tzelem Elokim. The world is so gashmi—materialistic—because so few people truly know what inner happiness really entails.
That is the real exile. There is no greater exile than not being yourself. It may sound trivial because, how can you be anyone but who you are? But the very fact that psychological depression is a national disease and anti-depressants are such a lucrative prescription drug today answers that question head-on. It is exhausting to watch how hard people have to work just to maintain an image they want to project, but which has little to do with who they really are.
We can call that, “Exile of the Personality,” and after many years of living like that it can become too hard to be redeemed from it. Just like the Jewish people in Egypt, a kind of “slave” mentality settles in over time, until the person sees their mistaken persona as the real one. When enough people act like this then it eventually takes an actual physical exile to bring people back to themselves. God didn’t make the world, especially one as elaborate as ours, for a bunch of phonies. Pun intended.
WE MAKE A big deal about chinuch, as we should. Education is what directs the mind, which has to decide how to use life. But we fail to realize what we need to really impress upon our children while our children are still so impressionable. We just assume the most important lesson about life is one that comes naturally to a child or is taught in school. Society and history show that there is little farther from the truth.
It’s a chronic problem. It’s also often the blind leading the blind. As Rav Hutner, zt”l, said, parents are not so much mechanchim—teachers, as they are mashpi’im—influencers. And though it is possible to teach someone to do something you don’t do, it is basically impossible to influence someone to do something that you clearly do not do. Parents who aren’t “themselves” have a tough time influencing children to be themselves.
Today it is harder than ever before. History has always had its up and downs, conservative and liberal times. But the world has never been so populated, so technologically advanced, and so out of touch with higher spiritual goals. And anywhere the Jewish people stay long enough, the social values of their host society are going to seep into their culture, even Torah culture. It is inevitable.
That’s why the Jewish people only went down to Egypt to sojourn. Ya’akov Avinu knew that if his descendants stayed too long in Egypt, they would be impacted by its society and eventually influenced by it. He was right. Those were the 94 years between Parashas Vayechi and Parashas Shemos.
The thing is, you can’t connect to God as anyone other than yourself. God is not interested in having a relationship with a persona. He only wants a relationship with the soul He created, as the soul He created. So many people have a difficult time relating to God because they are not really working on the relationship as themselves.
This is what yesurim—suffering—brings to the table. It breaks a person, or rather, their persona. The longer the suffering, the more difficult it becomes to be anyone other than yourself. People say that suffering people tend to become religious to take solace. The real reason is that the suffering strips away all of their pretenses and, returning to their essential self, they become in touch with their inherent need to connect to their Creator.
This is why the Torah is not concerned about the “missing” 94 years in Egypt. People were too busy losing themselves to one false idea or another. They were psychologically oppressed, and it was self-imposed. So Shemos begins with the physical oppression because it is the signal of the redemption, personal and national.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 34
THE CHOVOS LEVOVOS says that the “punishment” for trusting in anything other than God is to be left in the care of that false hope. See how far that gets you. Only God’s power is unlimited, while everything else has no power at all, and is certain to fail you at some point, as Pharaoh learned the hard way.
The problem is obvious. God may be all-powerful, but He is also demanding. He has expectations, moral expectations. God is capable of doing anything you want Him to, but more than likely, He is not going to do it for you if you are spiritually unworthy. This is why many people prefer to “believe” in false “gods” instead of the real One.
There is a story of a boy who was too lazy to invest energy in anything meaningful. But when he asked his father for money to buy something he really wanted, the father refused to give him anything until he had read at least ten classic novels. Very begrudgingly, the boy agreed to his father’s terms, which also included writing a thorough summary of each book.
It was very slow going at first, and the boy considered canceling the deal several times. But when he saw someone else already enjoying what he wanted, he resolved to carry on and reach his goal. The father, who checked in on his son now and then, was becoming impressed with his son’s newfound commitment.
A year went by and the boy finished his tenth book. He dutifully handed in his extensive report and was praised by his father. But before his father could hand him the envelope with the money in it, the son had already turned around to leave.
“Where are you going?” his father asked, surprised at his son’s lack of interest in his reward.
“To the library.”
“The library?” his father asked, curious. “Why the library?”
The son stopped, turned toward his father, and simply said, “I need more books to read.”
The father sat down and smiled. He took pleasure from the way his plan had worked even better than he had thought at first. His son had learned that reading was not only for his father’s sake, but for his own, and over the course of the year, it had turned his life around.
Similarly, God may make demands on us to give us what we want, but that is only to show us that what He demands is what we ought to demand from ourselves, for our own good. When a person realizes this, then they work on themselves as their personal project, achieving personal redemption and making themselves worthy of special Divine Providence.