Carrie Fisher used to say, “take your broken heart, make it into art.” It’s incredible how we are able to turn tragedy into triumph and our own dark moments into light and hope for others. Last week, we spoke about our interconnectedness, and there’s nowhere we see this more than in art. The stories that are the most popular in films and literature play off the primary story arcs which include rises, falls and, oftentimes, navigating both over and over. A few examples: “Rags to Riches” (rise), “Riches to Rags” (fall), “Cinderella” (rise then fall then rise), “Oedipus” (fall then rise then fall). Most stories that resonate play off of this. And this is seen in the Torah, too, especially in the story of Yakov and Yosef. When we bump into a friend or a stranger, we never really know if at that moment they are feeling a fall or a rise, and so we each have to be as graceful as we can. As I have been writing these dvars, my own story has been facing ups and downs, and when I feel low and go through something difficult that so many of us have gone through, I actually think it has been happening to put me in a space to be able to relate and bring light to others, since I am actually going through it, too– we are all connected.
Toward the end of this parashah, Yosef’s brothers are scared that because their father passed away, Yosef will finally take revenge on them. They think, “Perhaps Yosef will nurse hatred against us, and then he will surely repay us and the evil that we did to him.”1 They told Yosef that one of their father’s wishes before he died was that Yosef forgive their spiteful deeds. This means that for all their years, even though Yosef had shown time and again that he had forgiven them and met them with love, they lived with the fear that eventually he would take his revenge. It’s incredible how often this plays out in our own lives; the safek (doubt) and fear which plays on our minds as a personal Amalek, the nation (and notion) that the Torah commands us to eliminate from the world. The Hebrew words safek and amalek have the same gematria (numerical value) of 240. We are commanded to eliminate it because it is the force that makes us fall. It stands opposed to faith and is our strongest detractor of bitachon (trust).
A few weeks ago I bumped into someone I had lost touch with at one point when he was single and I was married. I used to invite him to dinner every Friday night so he would never have to eat or feel alone on Shabbat. My ex wife makes epic food, and so it was always a blessing to be able to share. When I got a divorce, I didn’t feel that same support from him, but part of me hoped or expected it. Looking back, in truth, I wasn’t inviting him with any motives for him to invite me back one day; it was done out of love. So, eventually I realized that it is often when we have our own high expectations of how something should play out that we are the most disappointed with what we receive.
This feeling came back around the last High Holidays, when I felt the pressure of having to figure out what my social plans were for each meal. A few weeks ago I bumped into this person at Trader Joe’s, and part of me wanted to walk past him, but the other part wanted to be open and see where it goes. Immediately this person expressed how incredible it was seeing me and that he felt so bad since this one exchange we had where he had done something wrong was eating away at him and that he had been speaking to his therapist about it a lot. He expressed that he was avoiding me because he felt that he had wronged me and was embarrassed. Clearly he was holding on to this feeling and it was weighing on him. I was shocked because it wasn’t something I thought about or held on to. I had said I forgave him when it happened and I truly did. I couldn’t believe he was holding onto it to that extent. I explained that the only thing I was holding onto was the fact that I went so far out of my way when I felt he needed me, but it didn’t feel reciprocated. He explained that he felt so bad that he had avoided facing me. Only then was I able to relieve that burden by saying I never actually held onto that at all. All of a sudden, the imagined weight of our burden was lifted, the seeming darkness turned to light, and avoidance turned to infinite possibilities.
Yosef’s brothers held onto the episode of when he was younger until the day of their father’s death. Yosef’s own actions toward them in return, of love and acceptance, didn’t ever fully give them the relief they needed and much of it was because they danced around their doubts and never addressed them.
And so they sent this message to Yosef:
“Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.2
The Chatam Sofer points out that first the brothers are characterized simply as אַחֶ֤יךָ (your brothers), and then they are they elevated to the status of עַבְדֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ (servants of your father’s God.) In this one pasuk we see that, in regard to how they treated Yosef, their behavior was not appropriate as servants of Hashem, but since then they had done teshuva and regained that status. So they were articulating this subtle difference as an attempt to show Yosef that Hashem has forgiven them so Yosef would do the same.3
The Chatam Sofer dives deeper into the kabbalastic allusions of their wording. When they begin their plea, they use the word אָ֣נָּ֡א, which is an acronym for the first three of the four components of the merkavah. Breaking down the four components, there is the ארי (a lion), נשר (an eagle), אדמ (man) and the fourth, which was deliberately omitted, is שור (an ox). Sofer explains that if Yosef did not forgive his brothers, we would be forfeiting his part in the merkavah. And their plea continues when they say, “please forgive” (שא נא), which complete the fourth letter for the acronym and the four components of the merkavah with the letter ש (shin). This teaches us that with forgiveness Yosef ensured his place amongst the avot, the patriarchs, as a conduit of the Shechinah in this world.4
Communication, forgiveness and truth are key to shedding light on the doubts that we carry. In Kohelet it says “I saw an advantage to wisdom over foolishness like the advantage of light over darkness.”5 In Tanya it teaches the simple meaning of this verse: just as light dispels darkness, so too wisdom dispels foolishness, as the truth tends to always come out in the end. And the deeper meaning is that the greater the darkness, the more apparent the light is by contrast, and the same applies to wisdom over great foolishness.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutey Sichot relays a teaching of the Baal Haturim: contrary to what one would think, the best years of Yakov’s life were in Egypt. As we read, “And Yakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years.”6 The gematria of tov (“good’) is 17. The Baal Haturim reads the pasuk as, “Our Patriarch Yakov lived his seventeen best years in Egypt,” and the Zohar expands and writes, “The main life that Yakov experienced was in Egypt, where he lived with joy and peace.” 7 Yakov’s entire life was spent in holiness, and so one would think that his time in the Promised Land would be the greatest if only because his actions, the space he was in, and his goals all became aligned. But, in fact, Egypt, because of its impurity and spiritual darkness, brought Yakov the opportunity to transform, and his light was at a higher level because it dispelled even greater darkness. From that, Yakov rose above his own spiritual level to the highest level of revealing Hashem’s light even in a place seemingly devoid of it. In our own lives, we need to eliminate our safek, our Amalek, the nations and notions that force us from faith and alignment. We have to face the things in our path and face them head on so as to have clarity and reveal truth. Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that the greatest level of joy comes from transforming one’s sadness and depression into happiness. Yakov was able to turn the sadness of exile into joy by focusing on the coming redemption.8
Yakov’s time in Egypt was his most elevated because of the mercy brought to him by the truth of his sons and of Yosef not only being alive, but bringing the light of Hashem in the darkest of places. Torah is rooted in Hashem’s essence and, just as Hashem transcends the concept of “high” and “low,” so too does Torah. Yakov sent Yehuda before him to “prepare a House of Study for him,” to ensure that coming to Egypt wouldn’t lead to a descent in his Divine service, but instead it would provide an ascent and a transformation of the nature of exile. And since the Torah remains unlimited in nature, Yakov, through the Torah, elevated himself above all the limits of the world, nullifying the concealment of Godliness generated by Egypt.9
Prior to Yakov wrestling the angel, Hashem revealed Himself at a lower level of prophecy, as visions in the night, through dreams, which we see with folks like Abimelech,10 Laban,11 and Balaam.12 But once Yakov wrestled the angel, and once he prepared to face Esav, he was renamed Yisrael.
Yakov’s transformations and closeness to Hashem always came, not when he hid in a space of holiness away from the world, but when he faced it, when he put himself in uncomfortable situations, facing Esav head on and again in going down to Egypt. How do we tap into the faith that regardless of what is happening it is happening for the good, and that it will be good, so there is no reason to despair? This is what Yosef tells his brothers in the end, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for the good: in order to accomplish – it is clear as this day – that a vast people be kept alive. So now, fear not – I will sustain you and your young ones.” And the next pasuk says, “he comforted them and spoke to their heart.”13 What the brothers didn’t realize was the level of emunah and bitachon that Yosef had. They thought he was stewing in anger toward them, awaiting the moment that he was on top and could finally rub it in their face and exact vengeance on them for that satisfying feeling, but Yosef instead knew all along that if it happened, it was meant to be, and so he had to keep on his mission to fulfill the will of Hashem.
What Yosef was telling them when he said, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for the good” was that even if they had evil intentions, since the outcome of his being sold was good, they are not liable.14 Yosef was also showing them that their teshuvah was true, and so their sin was turned into a good deed. As Yosef says, “Hashem will view my sale as a noble event, enabling the Jewish people to endure a relentless famine.”15
The Divine prophecy in the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream drew a picture of purpose for Yosef’s descent and journey into Egypt, one that would immediately save his family and so many others from death at the hands of a famine. His own pride aside, it was clear that he was there to secure the future, not of himself, but of everyone that would come after him.
Further in this parashah, Yakov blesses each of the sons, the 12 tribes: “and this (Zot, וזאת) is what their father told them when he blessed them.”16 The Zohar teaches that this (Zot) corresponds to Malchut, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains that malchut is associated with holy speech. In that, Yakov taught his sons that the greatest blessing of all is pure and holy speech. This is how we subdue evil and evil speech, which is the impure mirror image of malchut— the malchut of impurity. Not only should we only speak good of others and remove negative speech, but we must, when it comes to ourselves, speak only good and think only good. That is what brings blessings.17
The Arizal expounds on this concept of goodness and mercy, pointing out that Yakov is referred to as “the choicest of forefathers,” implying his servitude was greater than that of his fathers. In regards to our holy patriarchs, Avraham and Yitzchak, the Arizal teaches that their ways of relating to and serving Hashem contained some element of imbalance, which manifested as an imperfection. Unrestrained love can turn into living the wrong things and unrestrained fear can turn into fear of the wrong thing. And we see that although Avraham brought Yitzchak into this world, he also brought Ishmael into the world, and Yitzchak brought Yakov into the world, but he also brought the world Esav. Only Yakov’s sons were all considered righteous because only mercy mitigates love and fear and is therefore more pure and resistant to improper application.18
Yosef would have been justified in exacting justice from his brothers; that is why they were so fearful. But he chose instead to lean into the fifth of the thirteen attributes of mercy which is, “He does not maintain His anger forever.” Chazal (Our Sages) explain this from the pasuk, “When you see the donkey of the one you hate stumbling beneath its load.”19 We see that even when you see someone that you hate, you still have to help them. When it says “unload”, Chazal explain it to mean unloading what is in your heart, what weighs heavy. The moment presents itself as a chance to take an action that will further the distance and heaviness or bring the person closer through an act of love and kindness which unloads the weight in both people’s hearts. When we act with kindness, warmth and sincerity toward someone who we feel wronged us, we awaken Hashem’s merciful attribute, bringing that element further into our world.20
As we see in most everything in life, balance is instrumental in being in a space of goodness, as too much of one thing throws off the balance and alignment required for peace and blessings to flow. Mercy with each other and ourselves is the one thing we could attempt to overdose on and find that, even in those instances, it is often not enough. I pray that we go into Shabbat (a taste of the world to come) and use the opportunity to strengthen our attributes of mercy, bringing it into the week and the world.
Notes & Sources
- Genesis 50:15
- Ibid 50:16-18
- Torat Moshe ד״ה אנא
- Ibid 50a ד״ה והגאון
- Kohelet 2:13
- Genesis 47:28
- Zohar I, 111b
- Likutey Halachot II, p. 158a
- Likkutei Sichot by The Lubavitcher Rebbe p. 635
- Genesis 20:60
- Ibid 31:24
- Numbers 22:9
- Genesis 50:20,21
- Torat Moshe 50a ד״ה וישב
- Ibid ד״ה אנא
- Genesis 49:28
- Likutey Moharan I, 38:2
- Arizal, Apples from the Orchard p. 241
- Exodus 23:5
- Tomer Devorah, R’ Moshe Cordovero p. 66